Posted by on January 1, 2021 8:20 pm

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Categories: Coal Region Newswire Coal Region Newswire 2 Coronavirus in Schuylkill County Local News

year in review 2020

The year 2020 was one helluva year.

No other way to put it.

We’ve tried to encapsulate all that happened over the past 366 days, even waited until Jan. 1 of this new year to release this list of our top stories just in case something crazy happened.

Top Schuylkill County News Stories of 2020

So, let’s get right to it, the top news stories of 2020 in Schuylkill County. It was definitely one for the ages.

1. COVID Pandemic

How can the COVID pandemic not be the top news story of the year 2020? Impossible.

And we’re making the COVID pandemic our top story of 2020 not because of the toll the virus, itself, has taken on residents of Schuylkill County. Instead, we’re picking the coronavirus pandemic as our top story because of how it led to government interference in our everyday lives here.

Now, that’s not to undermine how devastating the virus has been here locally. According to the Dept. of Health, the China virus has claimed 245 lives here in Schuylkill County. And more than 7,800 people have contracted COVID-19.

It’s truly sad and could have all been avoided.

But really, as sad as those lives lost have been, all our lives have been affected by the pandemic. If not the virus, it’s the government response to it. And that’s where we’re focusing in as our story of the year.

Residents Ordered to Stay at Home

For the first time in our memory, the Pennsylvania government ordered residents to Stay at Home. That happened in Schuylkill County on March 30.

Originally, the Stay at Home order was supposed to last a month. But Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf kept extending the Stay at Home order here …

During the Stay at Home order, Wolf debuted his color-coded reopening plan. In a Stay at Home order, we were stuck in the Red phase here in Schuylkill County. And the longer that persisted, the worse things got around here.

Businesses Ordered to Close

Part of the Red phase that affected the most Schuylkill County residents were the business closure orders. Wolf applied the controversial “non-essential” label to many businesses, forcing them to close or operate remotely.

These rules were applied inconsistently and that only led to more controversy.

Schools Closed in Schuylkill County

In addition to businesses being ordered to close, schools were also closed. That happened in mid-March. At first schools were closed for just 2 weeks but of course, that was extended until the end of the school term.

And even at the start of the 2020-2021 school term, administrators were unsure how to handle re-opening schools here. Even into 2021, schools still struggle with whether it’s safe or not to re-open and allow students back for in-person learning.

County Commissioners Tell Governor to Shove It – Wolf Calls Us “Cowards”

Finally, on May 29, Schuylkill County was moved to the Yellow phase of Wolf’s re-opening plan. But we didn’t go quietly.

In fact, in a rather bold move, Schuylkill County Commissioners signaled their intent to go against the state Health Dept.’s orders to stay in the Red phase and said we’d go about things on our own. They had the backing of the business and healthcare industries locally.

But due to backlash from some fearful members of the public and one County Commissioner, the county decided to back down from its plans.

Wolf was not happy about our plan to go about things on our own. And he called us and several other counties out for our intent to defy his illogical orders. In a press conference rant we dubbed the Riot Act of 2020, Wolf even stooped so low to call us “cowards”.

The Fight Over Masks

The Wolf administration certainly succeeded in dividing Pennsylvanians. And that led to a lot of infighting here in Schuylkill County, especially when it came to the face mask mandate.

There was even a short-lived Facebook group led by snitches that attempted to out Schuylkill County businesses that weren’t requiring face masks:

A local business owner was even attacked and hospitalized after he recently told a customer to wear a mask:

But it was Wolf who wasn’t sure if masks were required or necessary at first. Someone clearly got to him and set him straight. Because every day since the state issued an official order on wearing face masks in Pennsylvania, he hasn’t shut up about them. But we covered every clumsy step he took along the way.

FOR MORE: Coronavirus in Schuylkill County

2. Schuylkill County Blows Through $12.7 Million CARES Act Fund – Several Call for Full Audit

One of the “perks” of the COVID pandemic was the aid money approved by the federal government and then distributed by the state government to individual counties. It was known as the CARES Act and Schuylkill County got more than $12.7 million.

The money was intended to help struggling small businesses and other organizations get through the pandemic. But in Schuylkill County, small businesses and non-profit organizations were an afterthought. If not for constant needling from the public, it’s very likely the County would have never even created a small business grant program to give them some of this CARES Act money.

The cherry on this parfait has been what the County actually tried to spend the CARES Act money on: automatic flushing toilets and water fountains, a new HVAC system, and unnecessary equipment for the County 9-1-1 system.

We’ve been on top of this story from the beginning, even when other local media outlets chose to ignore it completely.

3. Commissioner Halcovage Accused of Sexual Harassment at Courthouse, Steps Aside as Chairman

During 2020, Schuylkill County Commissioners Chairman George Halcovage was accused of sexual harassment and other workplace behavior violations by several women. An internal county investigation revealed that those accusations were credible and that Halcovage likely did violate workplace rules.

Halcovage responded by denying the accusations completely but agreed to step aside as Commissioners Chairman. Then, for the balance of the summer, he was forced to listen to a stream of accusations during public meetings. He’s reportedly also been confined to his office while working at Schuylkill County Courthouse.

The County was even forced to release a surveillance video that showed Halcovage strangely scaling an embankment next to the Courthouse to enter the building.

It’s been reported by the RepublicanHerald newspaper that Halcovage is now the subject of a criminal investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

4. County Intends to Buy Former GIANT Property in Pottsville

Over the summer, The Canary broke two really big stories in Pottsville. First, the GIANT grocery store on Progress Ave. closed for good after 37 years in business. And not soon after that, Schuylkill County government signaled its intent to purchase the property. That second story touched off a firestorm of controversy that still hasn’t ended.

One of the intended uses of the property was to turn it into a pre-release prison, a goal the county government has had for about 20 years to alleviate overcrowding at Schuylkill County Prison.

That idea didn’t go over well with just about everyone. The Commissioners heard from members of the business community, the public, and even other elected officials who said very plainly, “DON’T DO IT!”

State Sen. Dave Argall even introduced legislation in the Pennsylvania Senate to block such a purchase. But despite everyone demanding the Commissioners back off that plan, they ignored everyone and still went forward with plans to buy the property.

The property still sits vacant and hasn’t been purchased but the County hasn’t backed off its plan.

Here’s our continuing coverage of this story that we’ll continue to follow into 2021:

5. Commissioner Frank Staudenmeier Dies

Tragically, the year 2020 did not start off well even before the pandemic and the state’s response to it.

While on vacation in Florida, Schuylkill County Commissioners Chairman Frank Staudenmeier passed away.

Thousands mourned the loss of the likeable politician, businessman and community figure.

6. Pottsville School District Places Superintendent on “Medical Leave”

Controversy continued to follow the Pottsville Area School District into 2020. And by the end of the year, school board members there had voted to place Superintendent Jeff Zwiebel on an extended medical leave until the end of his current contract, which expires in April 2021.

So, until then, the school district will pay him his full salary while also paying someone else – Interim Superintendent Jared Gerace – to be Superintendent.

Earlier in the year, the Pottsville Area teachers union had taken a no confidence vote in Zwiebel.

7. Former Clerk of Courts Steve Lukach Sentenced to Prison

In October, former Schuylkill County Clerk of Courts Steve Lukach was sentenced to 27 months in prison for his role in a corruption scandal in which he pocketed thousands of dollars in public money to spend on personal bills and even a pizza party for employees of his office.

During an episode of Schuylkill County Watchdog Scott Thomas’ Facebook program, former Schuylkill County Controller Christy Joy detailed how Lukach pulled off his scheme for years:

8.  County Commissioners Squash Critical Public Comments

We’re actually still waiting for Schuylkill County Commissioners to publicly walk back part of new rules regarding public comments during virtual meetings that prohibit us, other media, and the public from recording public meetings held on the Zoom app or any other virtual platform.

Facing intense public backlash for a year of terrible decisions, Schuylkill County Commissioners approved new rules regarding those comments. While the public used to be able to call in and voice their displeasure with the Commissioners and their actions, new Chairman Boots Hetherington’s new rules require that all comments are submitted in writing and he’ll read them aloud during meetings.

It didn’t take long for us to catch Hetherington editing those comments and refusing to read some he deemed redundant.

9. Election 2020 – Schuylkill Backs Trump, Precincts Run Out of Ballots, Argall Chairs Controversial Hearing in Gettysburg

It wasn’t a surprise that Schuylkill County strongly backed President Donald Trump in the 2020 Election. That’s not really news.

But it’s what else happened on Election Day and after Election Day that really made headlines.

The General Election was the first for new Schuylkill County Election Director Al Gricoski and it’ll be one to forget, for sure.

Some local polling locations in the area actually ran out of ballots during the day on Nov. 3. It led to some intense public backlash and of course, the County Commissioners misinterpreted those criticisms and said members of the public were attacking poll workers, when they were really attacking county officials for poorly running the election:

10. Yuengling Announces Historic Partnership with Miller-Coors

Lost in the madness of 2020 was this big news from Schuylkill County’s most recognizable business. Earlier in the year, DG Yuengling & Son announced a partnership with brewing giant Miller-Coors that aims to extend the Pottsville brewer’s national footprint. Soon, Yuengling beers will be available in nearly every American state. Some people will remember when it was hard to get Yuengling products on the other side of Pennsylvania.

 

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