Kaitlyn and Rebecca Holste

Kaitlyn Holste, left, with her mother, Rebecca Holste.

They say all news is local, and 2020 proved it. The global pandemic that has so far claimed the lives of more than 330,000 Americans was also achingly felt here in Effingham County.

COVID-19 was surely the top local story this year and will likely continue to dominate headlines near and far in 2021 – hopefully with a brighter tinge as newly approved vaccines become more widely available.

As we move into the New Year, here’s a look at the local stories that shaped 2020.

Pandemic

The same day that President Donald Trump declared the novel coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on March 13 ordered the closing of every school in the state until March 30. But as the virus spread and the state and national death toll mounted, Illinois schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year, causing upheaval among students and their families.

Athletics were canceled. Virtual learning took hold. Graduations were delayed and changed from the traditional pomp and circumstance that celebrates accomplishment and looks forward to life’s next steps.

The lights threw their brilliant illumination upon Klosterman Field and the rest of the Effingham High School sports complex the evening of April 17 – just hours after Pritzker said that students would not return to classrooms. Kaitlyn Holste, an EHS valedictorian, stood in the parking lot across from the field as hundreds of people drove through, honking their support for the students. Tears welled in her eyes, which reflected the lights that were turned on at 8:20 p.m. – or “2020,” as the military tells time.

“Some parents decided to light the football field up for us and come drive through and honk,” the senior said. “It truly means the world.”

Lisa Schafer

Lisa Schafer sanitizes the door handle of the Baseball Card Connection in downtown Effingham. She co-owns the store with her husband, Jon. Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued an executive order detailing all non-essential businesses to close to help deter the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The sports memorabilia storefront will close, but the Schafers will continue fulfilling orders online.

Pritzker ordered bars and restaurants closed to indoor dining starting on March 17. By March 21, the order applied to everyone as Pritzker told all non-essential workers to stay home and non-essential businesses to close.

“The longer we are shut down, the more impact there will be,” said Danielle Higgs, manager of On The Rox Pub and Grub near Altamont. “It’s not going to affect us in a very good way.”

“I think it’s the correct move,” said Jon Schafer, co-owner of the Baseball Card Connection in downtown Effingham. “Everybody needs to sacrifice for a few weeks and stay away from each other and let this virus die off.”

Weeks stretched into months. The Effingham County Fair and other events would be canceled as local businesses struggled to survive.

Effingham County began the year with 3.2% unemployment, which dropped to just 2.4% in March. With COVID-19, that skyrocketed to 14% unemployment in April, according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. By November, the Effingham County unemployment rate had inched toward pre-pandemic levels and stood at 4%.

Businesses in the 10 zip codes that touch Effingham County received between $73.5 million and $141.4 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loans. Most of them were under $15,000. The average loan size in Effingham County was $97,000.

The program provided a lifeline for some businesses. Mid-Illinois’ Concrete, which sells concrete for industrial and residential customers and employs 99 people, got just north of $1 million through PPP.

Concrete

A crew of finishers from Mid-Illinois Concrete pours concrete at a warehouse under construction just south of Effingham.

“We were scared,” said Matt Meyer, the company’s general manager. “The big commercial jobs all went on hold. ... With utilities and payroll, we spent it all.”

After Gov. J.B. Pritzker on April 23 announced he would extend the state’s stay-at-home order, local State Rep. Darren Bailey filed a lawsuit in Clay County asserting that the governor overstepped his authority. Bailey said counties and their local health departments should establish the guidelines for who should stay at home, which businesses can operate and other actions to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“They’re the ones that really hold the power when it comes to a health crisis or situation,” said Bailey, who represents the 109th House District, which covers all or parts of Clay, Edwards, Effingham, Jasper, Lawrence, Richland, Wabash, White and Wayne counties.

Darren Bailey

State Rep. Darren Bailey speaks during a press conference in front of the Effingham County Museum.

In May, Bailey was removed from a state House session at the Bank of Springfield Center for refusing to wear a face mask. The rules required members to wear a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19. He returned the next day, wearing a mask.

Earlier this month, a Sangamon County Judge {span}Raylene {/span}{span}Grischow {/span}essentially voided Clay County Judge Michael McHaney’s July 2 order that favored Bailey. Grischow also denied Bailey’s request from October to find Pritzker in contempt for failing to follow McHaney’s order.

On Nov. 3, Bailey won the 55th District State Senate seat in a landslide.

Image of cross

In early January, demonstrators carried crosses, American flags and Christian flags as they walked in front of Effingham City Hall to support keeping a cross in a mural painted on public property that one group said needed to be removed because of the separation of church and state.

FFRF wants cross removed from mural

Bryan Newswander, lead pastor at Effingham Assembly, visits the mural beneath Raney Street overpass and reflected on how the cross is a symbol of this community.

Cheryl Bloemker, 75, of Effingham, said the cross on the mural represents her faith and belief in Jesus.

“If you don’t stand up for it, they will want to take the big cross down,” she said.

It was standing room only at Effingham City Hall on Jan. 6 as people implored the city council to keep a cross in a mural on city property despite opposition from a group that wants it removed. Letters to the Editor, social media posts and even an EDN editorial said the mural should stay as it is. But in May, city officials quietly had that image removed the wall alongside the Raney Street overpass that is owned by the city.

Support for mural with a cross brings community to City Hall

It was standing room only at City Hall, where many people came to hear comments and speak on the topic of the mural painted at Raney Street overpass near Effingham High School. An estimated 80 people were in attendance for the council meeting, many for this single topic.

“While each City official might find the mural to be an attractive and accurate representation of the City, the Council wants to emphasize that the City of Effingham is an inclusive and welcoming City where broad and diverse viewpoints are accepted and respected,” officials said in a statement.

Social justice rally

National events took over Effingham on June 6 as hundreds gathered for a peaceful rally for social justice in downtown Effingham.

social justice

A demonstrator and others call for reform during a peaceful rally in June put on by the Effingham Social Justice Group.

Brandon Marschewski of Effingham described it as beautiful. Marschewski, 20, who is Black, joined roughly 500 others for the demonstration organized by the Effingham Social Justice Group.

“Seeing all this love, this compassion – it re-instills hope inside,” Marschewski said. “I feel like moving forward, things are going to be different. Change will come.”

The demonstration in Effingham reflected rallies taking place across the United States following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck. Chauvin has been fired and charged with murder. Floyd’s final words were “I can’t breathe.” Demonstrators chanted that plea as they marched around the Effingham County Museum lawn.

Attendees knelt or laid on their stomachs, mimicking the position Floyd was in while pinned to the ground by Chauvin for nearly nine minutes, the same amount of time Floyd was filmed as he begged for air. Marschewski said those nine minutes at the rally brought him to tears.

“It got me,” Marschewski said. “Seeing all the signs, seeing all the different comments and statements and analogies that all these people from different walks of life have that they’re bringing to the table, it’s beautiful. I feel like it’s going to have a major positive impact on Effingham’s community.”

Back the Blue

On a Friday night in October at the Thelma Keller Convention Center, there was live music, raffles, free food, and signs reading “Back the Blue.”

Branded as a “Back The Blue First Responder Appreciation Event,” it was organized in the wake of calls for police reform across the country as a way to show community support for first responders and law enforcement in the Effingham area.

Back the Blue event held to raise money for police

People gather around the table selling tickets for the more than 70 raffle items during a “Back the BLue” event in Effingham in October.

What was originally planned as “rally” morphed into something in between a neighborhood block party and fundraiser concert. The duo of country guitarists who performed as “Broken Roots” on NBC’s America’s Got Talent provided entertainment. There were raffles for everything from a new 43-inch television to cutting boards with engraved police related imagery to a new pistol and holster.

“I don’t think they [the police] are getting a fair deal right now,” said one attendee, Jeff Having. He attended to support the family members he had in law enforcement.

Having’s daughter, who attended with him shared this view.

“I just want them to know that they’re doing good,” said Danielle Having.

Money raised was donated to support things such as Shop with a Cop programs, Special Olympics, and K9 Funds.

Recreational marijuana

Potential customers for adult-use recreational cannabis were disappointed when they arrived at The Clinic Effingham on New Year’s Day 2020 to find they couldn’t purchase weed on the first day of legalized sales. Despite news reports and social media posts informing customers that Effingham wasn’t quite ready for recreational cannabis sales, some came unknowingly to the medical marijuana dispensary.

Olney resident Cliff Bakehorn was among those who pulled up to The Clinic Effingham ready to buy cannabis only to be frustrated when he discovered he couldn’t.

“It’s kind of confusing,” said Bakehorn. “We looked online at different things in the past couple of days and this seemed to be the place to come today, but now I’m pretty frustrated because of the lack of sales. I don’t understand why.”

Jessica Tracy

Jessica Tracy of Lawrenceville was the first in line on Feb. 29 at Rise Effingham to purchase adult-use recreational cannabis.

Effingham City Council narrowly decided the previous November to allow Green Thumb Industries, which owns The Clinic Effingham, to sell adult-use recreational cannabis after three public meetings on the topic. Under the new legalization law, municipalities are given the authority to ban recreational marijuana sales within city limits if they so choose.

But on Feb. 29, around 30 people stood in the cold to be the first customers in line to purchase adult-use recreational cannabis at the renamed clinic, Rise Effingham. At the front of the line just before the store opened was Jessica Tracy of Lawrenceville. Tracy said she had been waiting at the Rise Effingham doors since 5:30 a.m. and was looking forward to “cutting out the middle man” now that recreational cannabis was legal and available in Effingham.

“I came here because of the dependability of the workers and the variety of products,” Tracy said.

Effingham Daily News Editor Jeff Long can be reached at jeff.long@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 129.

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Editor

Graduated with a degree in journalism from UW-Madison in 1987. Reporter at a newspaper outside London, England. Then a reporter at papers in Pennsylvania and Virginia. For 13 years, a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune. Named EDN editor in 2014.