Pandemic hogs headlines, despite $1B in local projects
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Except for sporadic reports from national news outlets, few people had heard of COVID-19 when 2020 began. Before the year was three months old, though, the virus had begun to hog news headlines the world over.
The novel coronavirus began its globe spread in earnest in March, eventually reaching pandemic status, infecting more than 350,000 Alabamians (2,595 local residents) and causing the deaths of 4,737 — 34 of whom resided in Escambia County — by December 29.
As the deadly illness spread, schools and churches were closed. So were all businesses except those considered essential, such as any that sold even the least amount of food or groceries. Restaurants were closed down for a period, although many offered drive-through or delivery options.
Churches adapted to some degree, holding drive-in services or spreading the Word through online resources. Schools switched to a virtual learning environment in a desperate attempt to keep the education process going.
Gatherings of more than 10 people were virtually outlawed, and — though the order was largely ignored — masks or face coverings were mandated for anyone in public. Social distancing became a common phrase throughout society. Stores marked six-foot increments on their floors, though this was also largely ignored, and head counts were conducted to limit the number of customers inside at one time.
Despite the altered form of living prompted by the continued spread of COVID-19, life went on. A brief look at 2020 in Atmore and the surrounding area:
The year’s early days saw the beginning of an economic development wave that was projected to reach record-setting proportions by year’s end. Wind Creek announced the imminent construction of a new Starbucks restaurant, and interior demolition was conducted for the Strand Theatre reconstruction project.
Local schools continued to generate good news. Students at Escambia County Middle School continued to shine in the innovative math program. ECMS became later in the year one of only 97 schools nationwide designated as an Imagine Math Beacon School.
The good news continued in the year’s second month. Tractor Supply announced that it would build a store in Atmore, a project that was completed in May; Escambia Academy’s powerlifting team won its seventh AISA championship in the past 9 years, and Atmore Public Library named its Alabama Room in honor of the late Joyce B. Bolden, who was library director for 30 years.
There was bad news, too. A Martinville Loop house fire claimed the life of Chrissy Atkins; two juveniles were arrested after posting an online threat against Escambia Academy; and felony sexual misconduct charges were filed against a local preacher.
The pandemic’s effects began to make themselves manifest here, as city parks were closed and senior programs brought to a halt. Municipal court proceedings were scaled back to urgent matters only after the county’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced, and city police announced that summonses would be issued instead of arrests made for most misdemeanor offenses.
Atmore City Council, addressing the issue for the fourth time, finally approved a land swap that gave Escambia County Healthcare Authority 10 acres for a new hospital. The badly decomposed body of an Atmore woman, VanDora Latasha Dailey, was discovered in a mobile home on Jones Street. Dailey’s sister would later be charged with murder in connection to the death.
As the county’s coronavirus count reached 10, the Poarch Creek Indians tribe donated $1 million to Atmore Community Hospital for the purchase of new equipment and beds. Two local factories, Alto Products (masks) and Muskogee Technology (gowns), began manufacturing protective gear for healthcare employees and others.
The Strand Theatre project qualified for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, and the local school system lost a combined 75 years of experience when Assistant Superintendent Beth Drew and Escambia County Middle School Principal Debbie Bolden announced their retirements.
A 12-hour standoff with a local man, who was arrested but unharmed, ended when police stormed a local home. An Atmore man, Desmond Deshun Dirden, was murdered at a local apartment complex. An arrest was made in June.
Several local restaurants and some stores reopened; individuals and groups conducted giveaways of hot meals and/or groceries, and the deaths of two county residents were blamed on COVID-19. The local library and related Books by Mail program resumed operations. Drive-by birthday and anniversary parties were common, and at least one drive-by graduation party was held.
Elsewhere, Escambia County High School seniors earned scholarships with a value of $15 million; the annual Memorial Day program was canceled; and FBI agents shot and killed a North Carolina fugitive murder suspect who was holed up in a mobile home here.
As the county’s COVID total topped 100, Wind Creek reopened its casinos and other gambling operations, and Atmore became a part of Main Street USA. A peaceful protest march here was spurred by the murder by Minneapolis, Minn. police of a black suspect.
Eddie Gideons lost his life when his crop-dusting plane crashed just yards from his home, and Circuit Judge Dave Jordan announced his retirement.