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2020 vision: Looking back at a year of pandemic and pain in Baltimore, and casting a hopeful eye toward the new year

When the year began, Ron Furman was freshening up Max’s Taphouse, a mainstay in Fells Point and on most lists of the country’s best beer bars.

Erricka Bridgeford was facing a third year working to give a name and individual memory to the Baltimore homicide victims otherwise grouped together as an anonymous total.

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Caleb Stine, the Baltimore-based folk singer and an inveterate New Year’s resolution-maker, had decided this would be the year he played 100 shows.

And Ensheng Dong, a doctoral student in engineering at Johns Hopkins University, was worried about family and friends in China, where a new virus had started spreading.

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Little could they — or anyone, really — have imagined when 2020 began how it would end: in the throes of a pandemic that has devastated millions of lives and upended the health care system, politics, government, the economy, schools, workplaces and simply how we navigate a suddenly and utterly altered world.

“It’s not like you get a manual on how to plan for a pandemic,” Furman said.

As the year ends, a massive vaccination effort against the coronavirus has begun, offering a glimmer of hope amid dire warnings that the worst is still ahead. Already, about 78 million people worldwide have contracted COVID-19, and 1.7 million have died.

While the pandemic is global, it has been lived and experienced locally — starting, in fact, with how anyone can track those numbers in near-real time on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard.

Stemming from his desire to see how close to his hometown the then-new virus was spreading, Dong and his adviser, Lauren Gardner, an associate engineering professor, built the dashboard, updating it as the pandemic jumped national boundaries.

It’s became the definitive source of coronavirus data, garnering billions of clicks from policymakers, researchers and laymen alike as it fed a growing need to get a handle on the enormity of what had befallen us.

“Use of it went up and up and up,” Dong said. “It’s a parallel to the development of the virus.”

In Maryland and elsewhere, the toll has been staggering, and swift.

On March 5, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced that tests had confirmed the first three cases of COVID-19 in the state. By year’s end, the number of cases exceeded 257,000.

On March 18, Hogan said the first Marylander had died of COVID. In the months that followed, more than 5,400 other residents would succumb.

In addition to lives lost — often in the loneliness of an intensive care unit with only the comfort of an exhausted nurse’s gloved hand — the casualties and collateral damage rippled out through communities.

Businesses shuttered or are barely hanging on as officials issued a series of stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. Public schools remain largely conducted by remote even as some families didn’t have the tech for their children to continue learning. Cherished traditions, from festivals to fireworks to even Halloween trick-or-treating, were canceled or discouraged.

And still, the virus spread, through nursing homes, where more than 40% of COVID deaths occurred in Maryland, college campuses, prisons, rural areas initially and largely untouched, and even the Baltimore Ravens.

Through it all, people tried to take heart in the resilience and everyday heroism on display — the medical professionals, the bus drivers, the food service employees and other essential workers who soldiered on at great risk to themselves. And people found ways, whether by video conferencing or around fire pits, to reach out from the relentless isolation that otherwise separated us.

“We’re social creatures,” said Stine, among the artists who performed in a series called the Sidewalk Serenades. “What people need right now is connection.”

Organized by the Creative Alliance almost immediately after the first restrictions were ordered in mid-March, the series brought live performances to people’s doorsteps at a time when concert halls and museums were closed.

Improbably, despite having gigs canceled elsewhere in the country, Stine met his goal of 100 performances this year without straying very far from home through a mix of outdoor performances and livestreams. He marvels at how so many found ways to ease the weight of the unexpected crisis.

“We are bigger,” he said, “than the moment.”

‘Be safe … be peaceful’

As all-consuming as the pandemic has become, it of course didn’t occur in a vacuum. The year would prove eventful in other ways, although the pandemic threaded through much of what happened.

As 2020 began, the U.S. Senate voted to keep an impeached President Donald Trump in office. It ended with Trump losing his bid for reelection in part for how he handled the pandemic, initially dismissing its seriousness and sometimes egging on those protesting measures to combat it.

In Baltimore, where voters elected a new, youthful administration to City Hall, the pandemic added another layer to the city’s longer-standing struggles. The number of homicides surpassed 300 for the sixth year in a row.

“It’s been heartbreaking, and it’s been a year when the COVID epidemic exacerbated it,” said Bridgeford, the activist who founded the anti-violence group Baltimore Ceasefire. “It’s been a perfect storm this year.”

Bridgeford views the violence and the pandemic as twin public health crises, a framework that Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott, on whose transition team she served, has also used.

Black and other minority groups are disproportionately affected by both, said Bridgeford, who goes to the location of homicides to honor the memory of the victims. If only, she said, the same urgency to address the pandemic could be channeled toward the violence, as well.

“If we address violence the way we address disease, we’d solve this,” Bridgeford said. “You have to prioritize it.”

She hears people these days signing off from conversations by saying, “Be safe.”

“Imagine if we treated violence the same way,” Bridgeford said, “and we said, ‘Be peaceful.’”

New problems atop existing ones

Doug Fireside, the principal of New Song Academy elementary and middle school, is wary of excess nostalgia for “the before time” precoronavirus.

“COVID did not actually create a whole set of new problems,” he said. “It exposed what was already there,” he said.

While educators have long faced a digital divide, this year made it ever more glaring at a school such as his, located in the impoverished Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, Fireside said.

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First, he needed more computers for state assessment tests — which ultimately were canceled when schools were closed in the spring. Then, with instruction going from classroom to remote, school officials raced to provide devices to students without computers at home.

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Finally, as the year began drawing to a close, the New Song community faced a tragedy unrelated to COVID but more painful because of it.

A longtime prekindergarten teacher died of another illness in November, said Fireside, who declined to provide details to protect his colleague’s privacy. The school couldn’t even come together in person to mourn and process the loss, he said.

“This year’s preKs have never even been in the building,” he said. “We’re still dealing with the lack of ritual around her passing.”

Then, over Thanksgiving, Fireside himself fell ill — with COVID. He spent three weeks isolating himself from his family in his basement, and said fortunately he was spared more serious symptoms.

Fireside said teachers found a way to continue a holiday ritual of giving gifts to students on the last day of classes before vacation, this year dropping them off at their homes. The school held its usual assembly before everyone scattered for winter break, with a crowd of more than 130 jumping onto Zoom for it.

“We did some dancing and some singing,” Fireside said. “It’s been very difficult to give up the daily contact with the kids. But the kids responded, the families responded. So, it reminded me why we do this work.”

Together remotely in a year of disengagement

Throughout the area, much of the business of life has transferred by necessity to remote.

Like other pastors, the Rev. Alvin Hathaway Sr., of Union Baptist Church in Upton in West Baltimore, just a few doors down from where he grew up, now offers Sunday services online. Among the worshippers are those he teasingly calls his “bedside Baptists,” who show up on screen in robes or wander off and return with a cup of coffee.

While the convenience of remote services has increased attendance, Hathaway worries about what has been lost during this year of “disengagement.”

A member of multiple boards, including the Greater Baltimore Committee, Hathaway said he misses the in-person interaction that is still the best way to know what’s going on in town.

“You would love the interplay, who you’re sitting next to, the side conversations,” he said. “How do we get our info now? It’s coming by electronic means, and it’s different from when you’re getting it through the grapevine.”

The pandemic arrived with the city still reeling from “the layering of corruption,” Hathaway said, of the scandal over former Democratic Mayor Catherine Pugh’s fraudulent “Healthy Holly” children’s books scheme, and the continuing fallout from the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force, whose members robbed citizens and otherwise abused their power.

On top of that, the pandemic has created much economic hardship and inequities in a city that already had more than its share, Hathaway said.

“I’m seeing an increased amount of anger, a cynicism,” he said. “I see a sense of gloom. We don’t have money to do everything we need to do.”

Still, Hathaway said the recent elections, which ushered in a new president, Democrat Joe Biden, as well as a new administration and new council members in Baltimore, provide an opportunity for a reset.

“I have a lot of optimism about the new leadership,” he said. “I think we can craft a new vision, a new way of doing things.”

‘A whole new world’

Even as the end of the pandemic remains beyond view, it has already altered the landscape. Downtowns can be ghostly even in the middle of the week, with those who can working from home. Long-standing institutions, including the legendary Institute of Notre Dame girls’ high school and familiar businesses and restaurants have closed for keeps.

“It will take decades to recover from this,” said Furman, of Max’s Taphouse.

His industry has been particularly buffeted by the ever-changing restrictions on gatherings. The Maryland Restaurant Association recently sued Baltimore City and other localities that have banned indoor and outdoor dining after previously allowing it under capacity and space limits.

Furman said he has tried to manage things in a responsible way, even closing in March one day before Hogan ordered the closures. “I’d rather you got in the front of the line” for unemployment benefits, he told his employees, “rather than the back.” And indeed, faced with unprecedented levels of unemployment, the state agency that distributes jobless benefits struggled to keep up.

Furman also cut a hole in his building to fashion a takeout window, reworked the menu to make it more deliverable, and took to his home wood- and metalworking shop to create outdoor furnishings.

But all that produced just a fraction of his previous revenues.

“I went from three deep at the bar in a building that can hold 400 people,” Furman said, “to 21 tables outside.”

Then, cold weather set in. Then, Scott banned even outdoor dining.

“I just hope to God [Scott] takes the time to understand what it’s like to run a small business, especially in Baltimore City,” Furman said. “It’s so hard.”

Still, he remains hopeful, and thinks maybe the recent emphasis on carryout will lead him to focus on catering in the future. It wouldn’t be the first revamp of the 35-year-old Max’s, once a live music venue that featured national acts like the Smashing Pumpkins.

“It’s a whole new world,” he said. “What we’ve always done is reinvent ourselves.”

Still to be seen

Not much remained constant this past year. And next year will likely be as unpredictable, with the effect of everything from the new vaccines to the political change in Washington remaining to be seen.

But experts say at least we are heading into the new year with a clearer view of the pandemic. The tracking done by Hopkins and other groups, along with the federal government’s recently released data on COVID’s impact at the community and hospital level, provide a wealth of useful, accessible information, said Beth Blauer, who heads the Hopkins Centers for Civic Impact.

“It’s transformational,” said Blauer, whose centers use data to help governments and nonprofit organizations improve services. “It’s the first time data has been democratized in this way.”

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Blauer began collaborating with Dong and Gardner after happening onto the COVID dashboard and realizing it was based a couple of buildings away from her on the Hopkins Homewood campus.

Since then, various teams have taken the dashboard and other data in multiple directions, gathered under the umbrella of the Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center that Time magazine recently called one of the 100 best inventions of the year. The researchers anticipate continually adding categories, such as vaccination levels, as they become available.

But, Blauer said, roadblocks remain: Even now, there is no uniform standard for how COVID testing information is collected and reported. Not all states for example, break down data along racial and ethnic lines, she said, even though COVID has taken a disproportionate toll on some groups.

Additionally, there’s no guarantee that elected officials will base policies and directives on the evidence, she said, or that people will heed them.

Still, she is heartened to see how the public health message has managed to break through much of the noise of 2020.

“So much happened in the last year, even in the language,” Blauer said. “I hear my children talking about ‘flattening the curve,’ and it fills my statistical heart with joy.”

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