The COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on families, front-line workers and businesses, remained a top story throughout the year. But the focus shifted from sheltering in place to vaccination efforts and booster shots. Here in San Benito County, the BenitoLink team presented essential health information but also went beyond COVID-19-related stories, with extensive coverage on important actions in land use, transportation, government and education. With our Eat, Drink, Savor series and a wide variety of feature articles, we reminded readers that there was much to celebrate and explore in San Benito County in 2021.
Here’s a review of the year’s top stories.
The state was in Phase 1A of vaccination rates, which prioritized health care workers and residents most at risk of severe illnesses. The county also held several mass vaccination clinics for eligible residents.
The San Benito County Board of Supervisors also adopted a countywide COVID-19 fine policy that penalized individuals and businesses for violating the state and county’s public health orders.
Reporter John Chadwell continued in the field during COVID-19 and interviewed his subjects at a distance but in person. He wrote about fears new homeowners had about nearby homeless residents and their belief the developer of the Allendale’s The Lanes subdivision misled them when it came to the homeless population living nearby. On the other side of the 10-foot wall that encloses the neighborhood, Chadwell met Larry Avira. Homeless at the time, Avira opened up about his own concerns and the challenges he faced on a daily basis such as finding shelter, being a victim of violence and dealing with alcoholism.
After being approached by nearly a dozen high school employees, Chadwell reported on a lawsuit against San Benito High School District that alleged former bus driver Melanie Burns was terminated based on her mental health disability and workers compensation claim. Burns described the school bus barn as an abusive work environment. San Benito High School had previously settled after receiving allegations of wrongful termination by two additional bus drivers. The Burns lawsuit was dismissed in November.
The largely political scuffle between two powerful bureaucracies, the county and the federally funded San Benito County Health Foundation continued to play out in February. The Foundation linked up with local nonprofits organizing food drives for field workers and vaccinating in record numbers. Supervisor Mark Medina loudly confronted Rosa Vivian Fernandez at the Foundation about not following county protocol.
BenitoLink reported that because COVID-19 forced schools to do distance-learning for the majority of the 2020-21 school year, the number of seniors at risk of not graduating jumped from 7.15% to 13.19%. San Benito High School Board of Trustees opted to reduce the number of credits struggling seniors needed to graduate from 220 to 190.
After a years-long legal battle, San Benito County was ordered to provide 100% medical benefits to two retired employees, Normandy Rose and Margie Riopel. While the Board of Supervisors opted to appeal the decision, it now faces a similar second lawsuit from over 30 retirees. The second lawsuit is on hold awaiting for the appellate court’s decision on the Rose and Riopel case. Prior to filing an appeal, the county had already spent $531,000 on outside legal services on the first case.
San Benito residents learned that a new facility, eventually revealed to be an Amazon distribution center, was coming to Hollister.
In a special condor report, BenitoLink’s Carmel de Bertaut provided an update on the giant bird population following the deadly 2020 fires in California. The program continues to be based out of Pinnacles National Park, with young condors being released into the wild each year.
Though plans were approved to develop a facility for a distribution company in January, it was not until March that it was revealed that it was Amazon which was coming to Hollister. Through a fast-tracked application, it took four months for the project to get the green light from the city. The project was unusual in that the public had no opportunity to voice opinions about having Amazon and its hundreds of cargo vans move to Hollister.
It was in April that BenitoLink followed the journey of OR-93, a two-year-old male wolf. The story of the lone wolf began when it entered San Benito County and was spotted in south county. Sadly, after following the months-long journey of following the endangered wolf, he was found dead from a vehicular strike in Kern County in November.
Disputes between Hollister and San Benito Foods came to an end after they reached a five-year agreement with the tomato cannery. Had an agreement not been reached, the company would have not been permitted to operate through the 2021 canning season.
A dispute ensued when the Hollister City Council approved displaying in June the LGBTQ+ Pride flag at City Hall. Hours-long conversations about other flags led the council to adopt and then rescind a flag policy. The city also placed a third flag pole at City Hall.
A group of Hollister residents launched a recall of Mayor Ignacio Velazquez. The effort was later abandoned after residents cited repeated difficulties submitting forms. The city said forms were improperly filled out and deadlines weren’t met.
Schools returned to in-person instruction on a hybrid model throughout the county. BenitoLink reporter Andrew Pearson gave us the perspective of students and staff after a year of distance learning.
Though the facility was completed, BenitoLink reported that the Satellite Healthcare Dialysis Center was waiting to be certified by the state, forcing dialysis patients including former supervisor Jaime De La Cruz to continue to travel out-of-county multiple times a week for life-saving treatments. The facility has yet to open.
With environmental concerns given as a reason, the county contemplated cleaning up the San Benito River by removing unhoused residents but ultimately abandoned its efforts when it failed to identify an alternative site for the residents being displaced. BenitoLink spoke with several of those residents, who discussed how they would be impacted.
Expecting that the worst of the pandemic was over, wedding venues began rescheduling the big day for couples and slowly holding events that had been postponed because of COVID-19.
The Hollister City Council took on another controversial topic when it passed a resolution that prohibited City Council members from meeting privately with people considered lobbyists, real estate developers or anyone else speaking on behalf of a project. In interviews with former City Council members, BenitoLink heard from many who viewed the resolution as a restriction of free speech.
As summer officially started and residents began to spend more time outdoors, BenitoLink reporter Carmel de Bertaut reported on the wide variety of (mostly harmless) snakes of San Benito County.
On the government side, the Board of Supervisors approved a three-term limit for supervisors as Jaime De La Cruz and Anthony Botelho were completing their final days of four terms each.
A beloved boxing gym also lost its years-long home to the Hollister Farms Shopping Center development when the city somewhat abruptly notified them that the property would be used for a retention pond.
In a follow-up article regarding the Hollister resolution its city’s mayor said was aimed at restricting the influence of special interests on City Council members, BenitoLink explored how the rule gives the mayor power to jail council members and members of the public.
A former Raiderette shared about what she described as her “booty itch,” which later was diagnosed as anal cancer, and was now seeking to raise awareness about human papillomavirus.
Seven months after BenitoLink reported on a man living in a homeless encampment, we caught up once again with Larry Avira who had obtained housing through a county program after seven years of homelessness. Having attained housing, Avira set his sights on landing a job and re-connecting with his three adult children.
In one of BenitoLink’s most read and most shared articles of the year, we reported that Brigantino Park was closed after a mountain lion sighting in July. The interest in the topic prompted BenitoLink to produce a thorough report informing residents on how to spot signs that a mountain lion is nearby. The article had information on how to recognize mountain lion tracks, scat and the presence of animal carcasses.
Hollister native Suzy Brookshire and the Mexican national women’s softball team were just shy of a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her family and former coaches reacted to her performance.
Caltrans said it will be installing a transportation solution that San Benito County residents aren’t convinced is the answer to heavy truck traffic. The state is constructing a turbo roundabout at the Highway 25/156 intersection, saying it will help decrease the number of serious collisions there.
In earthquake country, it’s always a good idea to be prepared. In a special report, BenitoLink explored how the county will respond after major disasters such as earthquakes or power grid failures.
Throughout the year, BenitoLink reporters checked in with local businesses on their efforts to recover from COVID-19 shutdowns. In particular, restaurant owners shared the challenges they faced in attracting and retaining qualified staff.
Residents asked questions about continued dumping and heavy truck traffic from Santa Clara County. The John Smith Road Landfill was days from limiting in-county garbage when the operator obtained a permit from the state to increase the landfill’s capacity. The permit allows the county to accept out-of-county trash for another year.
The county honored residents who died from COVID-19. It held a ceremony outside the administration building adorned with white flags on the lawn.
After attempting to attend her court hearing without a mask and being prevented from entering the building by deputies, Hollister resident Courtney Evans went to trial where she was found guilty of resisting arrest and not guilty of trespassing. Evans, a local yoga teacher, had been arrested in the San Benito County Board of Supervisors chambers in December 2020 prior to a meeting.
After 18 months of no in-person visits, Jail inmates were able to see friends and family through glass.
A once popular senior housing project was reborn when a new developer bought the property located next to the San Juan Oaks Golf Course on Union Road in Hollister. The developer quickly began the first phase of construction of 1,084 units.
Reporter Robert Eliason spoke to Tyler Abercombie, who was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome. He had a record day at the San Benito County Fair when he sold his pig, Decimal, for $18,389.
San Benito High School was named one of ESPN’s Top 5 Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools for 2021. About 8,000 schools nationwide are eligible for the Top 5. According to the Special Olympics, a Unified Champion School has “an inclusive school climate and exudes a sense of collaboration, engagement and respect for all members of the student body and staff.”
Hollister Planning Commission approved the 116 home Avalon Village project near the intersection of Memorial Drive and Meridian Street.
A jury found Jose Antonio Barajas not guilty on two separate counts of attempted murder and guilty of shooting at an inhabited vehicle. Barajas was accused of shooting and killing 19-year-old Ariana Zendejas in August 2014. The jury was unable to come up with a verdict on three other counts— murder, attempted murder and kidnapping.
The return of visiting fourth grade students to San Juan Bautista was seen as a sign that the damage COVID-19 restrictions caused to local businesses may be coming to an end. Reporter Robert Eliason shared the relief local operators felt seeing school bus loads arrive once again.
Meanwhile, San Benito County continued to encourage residents 18 and over to get COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots.
Elaison wrote a three-part special report on the Gilmore Colony, where freed slaves were encouraged to move only to see the dream fade.
Read the first article here and the second article here.
Hollister native Emaan “Amy” Abbass has made a name for herself in the business world. BenitoLink reporter Jenny Mendolla Arbizu told Amy’s personal story of a life-threatening illness and journey of personal discovery. At just 35 years old, she found success after launching her feminine wellness brand Ketish in the Middle East this year.
Nonprofits like Emmaus’ House help women coping with domestic violence, but what kind of guidance do their partners get? Carmel de Bertaut reported on the other side of the complex topic of domestic violence.
Eat, Drink, Savor is an ongoing series about food and drink producers in San Benito County. In his last articles of the year, reporter Robert Eliason introduced a new beer by Hollister brewery Mad Pursuit and spicy treats by Off the Hook Essentials.
Are tiny homes the answer? Although it is not a new problem, the county continues to search for cost effective housing solutions. Five tiny homes are being installed behind the Migrant Housing Center in Hollister with 11 more planned as San Benito County.
Taking the hint that transportation is one of the most important topics for our readers, BenitoLink has increased its coverage and worked hard to stay on top of commuting issues. In December, we updated readers on five current projects in the county and announced $45 million in new funding for roadways is expected from the state in 2022.
As the year comes to a close, COVID-19 and Omicron are still both a health risk and an economic problem for San Benito County. On Dec. 15, a statewide order was issued requiring the use of masks indoors once again. This requirement will be in place until Jan. 15.
A year ago only the most vulnerable residents were just beginning to receive vaccinations. Today, nearly 70% of our residents are vaccinated. To get current information on the status of the pandemic in San Benito, read the Year end Q&A with San Benito County Health Officer George Gellert published Dec. 31
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