With the passing of 2020, many would likely be grateful if they never heard the word “unprecedented” again.
The just-finished year’s news cycle was largely dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its effects on every aspect of daily life. But as COVID-19 surged through California, the United States and much of the world, other stories also hit the front page: renewed calls for racial justice, a frantic election cycle, wildfires.
Through it all, Burbank residents reflected much of what was happening around them, echoing the fear, sorrow and disappointment felt by their neighbors. Many struggled with previously mundane tasks, made frustratingly complicated and often wholly dependent on a decent internet connection. Some lost loved ones. Others saw their small businesses close down forever.
But there were also points — however small — of optimism, determination and hope. Restaurant and shop owners pledged to one day open new businesses. Churches, nonprofits and businesses partnered to give food and other necessities to those in need. Families found ways to celebrate traditions while staying safe, or to remember those who had passed.
And many, over time, learned to adjust to the unprecedented.
Here are some of Burbank’s biggest stories of 2020.
CORONAVIRUS UPENDS ALL
On March 19, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced that Burbank had its first confirmed case of COVID-19.
City officials had declared a state of local emergency, and the Burbank Unified School District had already announced closures as instructors and administrators prepared for distance learning. The coronavirus had been declared a global pandemic, on March 11, and a wave of postponements and closures were being announced.
By the end of the year, the city had more than 5,000 confirmed cases and 110 deaths, with an unparalleled surge filling beds in intensive care units. Multiple outbreaks at local nursing homes and assisted-living facilities contributed to both figures. By the time two vaccines were being distributed, with more in other stages of development, the virus had already infected more than 19 million people and killed more than 300,000 in the U.S.
“In Burbank, we have lost residents and loved ones to COVID-19,” said Sharon Springer, who was the city’s mayor from December 2019 until last month, during a virtual speech in October. “And my fellow council members and I send our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences. We are persevering, we are adapting and we are strong.”
Local business owners often complained that county and state health orders were confusing and abrupt, and often came unattached to relief programs that could keep their finances afloat. Gyms, restaurants and hair salons were subject to partial or full closures early in the pandemic, while entertainment production studios — which employed many of Burbank’s workers — were also shut down for some time.
Some iconic locations, such as Moore’s Deli, known for its “animator room” filled with sketches of popular cartoon characters, didn’t survive the pandemic.
“Support small business,” said Robert Moore, owner of the eatery. “Because you may not think they’re struggling, but they are.”
In May, the peak of 2020’s local unemployment, about one in every five workers was without a job. City officials approved eviction moratoriums for renters and business owners affected by the pandemic and funneled federal funds into relief programs for them.
The BUSD announced in November that it will continue with distance learning for the rest of the school year, citing the recent spike in cases.
“I realize this is not the announcement we all wanted,” wrote Superintendent Matt Hill in a message to the BUSD community. “However, we must prioritize the health and safety of our students, families and employees and provide a consistent and stable learning environment. We will continue to add to our distance learning plan with in-person opportunities as soon as health conditions improve.”
Along with uprooting longtime businesses and emptying wallets, the pandemic also threw traditions into disarray. Many Burbank families made drastic changes to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, gathering only with a couple of members — or not at all.
“It sucks, honestly,” said Dawn Abbey of a restricted Thanksgiving. “I mean, it’s disappointing that we can’t [see my family], but ultimately this is how 2020 has been — disappointment after disappointment.”
CIF CANCELS SPRING SEASON; HOPE FOR 2021 SPORTS PERSISTS
One of those disappointments came when the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body for high school athletics, postponed spring 2020 athletics on March 13 and canceled the state basketball championship games due to concerns over the virus.
With cases on the rise throughout the state, CIF ultimately canceled the remainder of the spring season on April 3.
Determined to give student-athletes an opportunity to play a full season, the CIF Southern Section unveiled a modified calendar in July that included seasons for the 2020-21 school year. Sports were scheduled to resume Dec. 19 and football was to begin in January, but L.A. County and state restrictions due to COVID-19 have put those plans on hold.
The California Department of Public Health updated its youth sports guidelines on Dec. 14 and delayed all competition until at least Jan. 25. According to the new directive, sports will be allowed based on a chart that follows the state’s color-tiered metric on test positivity and adjusted case rates for COVID-19.
The county has been in the purple tier, indicating a “widespread” infection rate, and cases have continually spiked since the Thanksgiving holiday period. Health officials expect the number of new cases and hospitalizations to surge again due to Christmas, leaving little hope for high school athletics in the county.
TAX PROPOSAL FAILS
Adding to the BUSD’s financial challenges, the second attempt by the district to garner additional funds via a parcel tax narrowly failed in the March 3 primary election.
The proposed tax, which failed to reach the two-thirds supermajority vote it needed from local residents by about 2.7 percentage points, was projected to have raised $9.1 million annually for the district. The proposal, Measure I, would have collected a 10-cents-per-square-foot annual tax from Burbank property owners for 12 years.
Money from the proposed measure would have gone toward teachers’ salaries and expanded courses, as well as mental health counseling and campus safety efforts.
The measure’s failure led to the layoff of some workers and program cuts.
A similar proposal, Measure QS, also failed to pass in 2018 — missing the target by about 2.3 percentage points.
SEVERAL PROTESTS HELD
Months into the pandemic, the highly publicized death of George Floyd, a Black man, while he was in the custody of Minneapolis police officers — one of whom knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as he insisted he couldn’t breathe — sparked nationwide protests and renewed calls for police reform.
Other Black Americans killed or injured by law enforcement in 2020 quickly became household names: Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and others. Daily protests in Los Angeles were held, and a California law was signed that banned police from using chokeholds, a provision that went into effect at the beginning of this year.
In Burbank, cries of “Black lives matter!” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!” filled the air at peaceful protests. One early-June demonstration, organized by local residents Natalie Kinlow and Reed Shannon — then 18 and 19, respectively — included 1,200 to 1,400 people marching through the streets of the city.
“It’s a little bittersweet, because it’s like we shouldn’t have to protest for our lives to matter,” Shannon said then. “But it’s necessary, and so we must be the change that we want to see. It’s bittersweet, but it’s beautiful.”
The trial of the four former officers accused of being connected with Floyd’s death, with one charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and the others charged with aiding and abetting, is scheduled to begin on March 8.
CITY RE-EXAMINES POLICIES
While most of the protests sought primarily to raise awareness of the national issue of racial injustice, some residents also pushed local leaders to re-examine Burbank’s own approach to policing.
An annual external audit of the Burbank Police Department that was presented at a mid-July meeting commended many of the BPD’s policies and reforms, though it also suggested improvements to some of its administrative practices.
One of those suggestions, recommending that the department not allow officers to review body camera footage before being interviewed in use-of-force investigations, was declined by the department.
The City Council also changed the frequency of Police Commission meetings from quarterly to monthly. The group serves as an advisory board to the council on matters relating to the BPD.
By the end of 2020, the Police Commission had compiled a set of recommendations to present to the City Council, primarily containing suggestions to increase funding for the BPD’s special programs. The commission is expected to have a joint meeting with the council to review the recommendations on Feb. 9.
BUSD, CITY PASS RESOLUTIONS
With the blessing from several community members who spoke during a virtual meeting in mid-October, the BUSD Board of Education unanimously approved the proposed revision of school district policies and administrative regulations that now include language rejecting “all forms of racism as destructive to the district’s mission, vision, values and goals.”
The majority of public comments at the meeting supported the district for its first steps in addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Teachers, parents and community members shared personal stories involving racism, and board members appeared moved by what they heard.
“For us to be able to have that opportunity to listen and learn and create that dialogue so many people talk about, that is the start of this work,” said BUSD Superintendent Hill. “Some of this work has been happening in individual classrooms, with individuals at the district level and board level.
“But for us as the Burbank Unified School District to come out with a statement saying we are unified, we acknowledge our past, we acknowledge we aren’t perfect, we acknowledge that we need to move forward, that’s powerful. And it creates a space so we can have these conversations, that we can open our hearts and open our minds and continue the work.”
The school district’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee has served as something of a model for city officials; near the end of the year the City Council formed a racial equity and diversity subcommittee consisting of several municipal staff members, Mayor Bob Frutos and Councilwoman Springer.
The council also voted in December to approve a resolution apologizing for racist policies in Burbank’s history and pledging to pursue local, state and federal measures that promote equity.
BURROUGHS STUDENTS SEEK NEW MASCOT
While the BUSD’s leadership was making strides to oppose racism, the students of one of its schools were also taking a look at a controversial mainstay.
With wide support from classmates, teachers and administrators, the John Burroughs High School Associated Student Body is officially in search of a new mascot.
In a December poll, out of the 1,540 votes from the student body, 63.7% supported a change. The Indian has been the mascot since JBHS was established in 1948.
“It was a large turnout of voters,” said BUSD Superintendent Hill, who was pleased with the result. “It was great that a lot of students weighed in and got to vote.”
The process, spearheaded by ASB President Nadaly Jones, a senior, began in August with research performed by the organization’s members and a discussion amid concerns that the school symbol was racist and outdated. Of the 40 student government representatives, 37 voted to bring the issue to Burroughs students.
ASB leaders will sift through possible replacements and present options to the student body for a vote, though a timetable has not been established.
Also, Hill removed “The Cay,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Of Mice and Men” from the core novels list after receiving multiple complaints — a decision that was condemned by some other parents. The books will no longer be part of the BUSD curriculum but are still available at the school libraries.
COUNCIL CANDIDATE SUES CITY
After a lengthy legal process between Burbank and a City Council hopeful who has since won a seat on the panel, a judge ruled against the city in August, placing rent control on the ballot.
Burbank was embroiled in a legal battle against eventual Councilman Konstantine Anthony and his campaign manager, Margo Rowder — co-founders of the nonprofit Tenants’ Rights Committee — since June. That month, City Clerk Zizette Mullins rejected the pair’s petition to put Measure RC, a rent regulation initiative, on the ballot, saying a necessary statement had been left out of their documents.
Anthony and Rowder sued, arguing the piece of language was not needed, and a judge ruled in their favor on July 23. But before that ruling, the city filed a cross-complaint about the proposed ordinance’s alleged conflict with Burbank’s charter, leading to an additional court hearing.
The judge didn’t give a strict ruling in that case, allowing Measure RC to proceed to the ballot but leaving the door open for the city to bring the lawsuit back if voters approved the initiative.
However, the point proved moot; Measure RC was soundly turned down by voters, with 63.79% saying “No” to the measure, and the lengthy legal battle was concluded.
NEW LEADERS CHOSEN
Anthony did secure one victory on Election Day, however: He and fellow candidate Nick Schultz, a state deputy attorney general, were elected to the City Council.
Anthony soared into first place early in the ballot count process, with more than 17,500 votes cast in his favor. Schultz maintained a consistent lead for the second open council seat, with more than 13,100 voters casting a ballot for him. The pair was sworn in to office at a reorganization meeting in mid-December.
They replaced council members Tim Murphy, who earned fifth place in the election, and Emily Gabel-Luddy, who did not seek reelection. A total of eight candidates ran in the local election.
Three seats were open for the BUSD Board of Education, with newcomer Emily Weisberg quickly becoming the front-runner and ending up with more than 32,400 votes. Current board members Armond Aghakhanian and Steve Ferguson kept their seats, while Roberta Reynolds concluded her term in 2020.
“Looking at not only school board but also City Council,” Weisberg said, “I think what is clear is Burbank voters want change.”
City Councilman Bob Frutos was appointed in December by his fellow members to serve as Burbank’s mayor for 2021, with Jess Talamantes to hold the position of vice mayor.
RESTAURANT OPPOSES DINING BAN
After the city of Burbank approved a measure — at the behest of hundreds of community members — that called for enforcing face covering requirements with potential fines in October, a local restaurant owner, Baret Lepejian, drew controversy for announcing he would not require patrons to wear masks.
He again drew the ire of many local residents in December, when he said he would reopen the patio of his establishment, Tinhorn Flats, despite a statewide order banning in-person dining. Lepejian insisted that the threat of COVID-19 has been overblown, and that the virus doesn’t kill younger people.
“[The dining ban] has nothing to do with the disease,” he said. “This is only about fear and control of the public.”
After a deluge of complaints from residents, the city reported the restaurant to county and state health enforcement agencies. A hearing date for a county attempt to pull Tinhorn Flats’ health permit is scheduled for January. If successful, the department may need to seek a court injunction to shut the restaurant down.
Less than two week after Tinhorn Flats reopened, two people, including a Burbank man, were arrested after what police said was a fight outside the restaurant.
The incident involved five people and occurred on Dec. 22, according to BPD Sgt. Derek Green. He said the altercation appeared to have been “fueled by differing political views,” with the argument turning physical and at least one person suffering cuts.
Police arrested Steve Ceniceros, a Burbank resident, and Randi Berger of Tarzana on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, Green said. A police report listed three victims, who said the suspects used racial epithets, he added.
But the spokesman confirmed later that the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office had declined to file charges against either suspect, though BPD detectives are still investigating.
— Oscar Areliz contributed to this compilation of reports