Pandemic’s Second Year Drafts the New Normal

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader

First published in the Jan. 1 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

The coronavirus pandemic induced a wave of changes — some small, others major — across the United States, California and Burbank in 2021.
COVID-19, which has killed more than 800,000 U.S. residents, still leered over the resumption of public events, face-to-face classes and crowd-thronged sports games. And with the rise of the virus’ Delta variant, as well as the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant, officials announced additional restrictions and requirements, often influenced by the coronavirus vaccines.
But not only health orders reshaped daily life. Other movements, sometimes spurred by inequities and systemic gaps exposed during the pandemic, called for societal reforms both local and national. And with the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, continued outcry for racial justice, large-scale labor disputes and warnings from scientists about the effects of climate change, it appeared 2021’s “new normal” wouldn’t simply mean seeing more masks.
Neither did Burbank remain unaffected by these changes — or by shifts within its own community. And though many wished for a return to a city where the pandemic existed primarily as a fictional plot in its local studios, others yearned for a community that they believed could be better than before.
Here are some of the Leader’s top stories of 2021.

PANDEMIC TAKES TOLL
As the spread of COVID-19 in California declined and vaccinations increased, state officials gradually rolled back many of the restrictions to which residents had grown accustomed. On June 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom — who in September soundly defeated a recall attempt — lifted most of the state’s coronavirus-related rules. Customers returned to bars and restaurants, capacity limits gone.
Some local businesses fared better than others. A few iconic locations had closed for good. Tony Charmello, owner of the The Snug, said in June that his pub was almost one of them.
“I’m just praying we don’t have another shutdown, because if we have a second shutdown, I think a lot of people will [close],” he added then.
And while Burbank didn’t have as many deaths compared to its population as many other cities, it couldn’t completely isolate itself from the pandemic’s human toll. At the end of 2020, about 120 Burbank residents had died of COVID-19. Nearly 5,300 had tested positive for the disease. Toward the end of 2021, the local death toll exceeded 260 and more than 13,000 people had been infected.
In June, the city displayed a memorial of 242 felt roses, one for each of its residents who had died from the coronavirus by that time. One of those roses was for the mother of Bob Frutos, Burbank’s mayor for most of 2021.
“Everybody was affected by COVID-19,” Frutos said in an interview after the event. “Everybody either knew somebody or lost a family member. But this here is a symbol of the acknowledgement … that we will never forget.
“The healing process — through the art, through the roses or the sound of the beautiful music — to reflect on lost loved ones is so critical for the city to heal and to continue to move forward.”

SCHOOLS REOPEN

Photo by Oscar Areliz / Burbank Leader
Alex Ramos (left) and his son, Landon, were greeted by a Miller Elementary employee when they returned to school in April 2021 for the first day of in-person instruction since March 2020.

After more than a year of distance learning, the Burbank Unified School District reopened to limited in-person instruction in April. The following semester, in August, schools fully resumed in-person learning.
“It definitely was an exciting week,” BUSD Superintendent Matt Hill said on the first week of fall classes. “The energy on the campuses was just tremendous. Our students are just so happy to be back. I talked to so many teachers and staff from the schools and they’re just thrilled to finally reconnect with the students.”
Parents, students and teachers, many of whom reported fatigue from the confinement to virtual platforms, lauded the return to face-to-face interaction. Not everything in the district would be the same as they’d left it, though. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, staff members and children remained masked in most instances.
Matt Chambers, a John Burroughs High School alumnus, became his alma mater’s principal after his predecessor Deborah Madrigal retired.

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Dolores Huerta Middle School Principal Jennifer Meglemre walks with Dolores Huerta, the labor leader and civil rights activist whose name the school adopted this year. Huerta, 91, who with Cesar Chavez founded the predecessor organization to the United Farm Workers union, visited the school in September.

Construction began on a new building at Walt Disney Elementary School after years of delays. And David Starr Jordan Middle School was renamed after legendary labor activist Dolores Huerta.
Jordan was a controversial academic who advocated in favor of eugenics, a movement that set out to improve the genetic composition of humankind by way of selective breeding and is now widely viewed as racist.
“You, the young people out there, you’re going to be strong and you’re going to meet those issues that we have,” Huerta told students at an event honoring the renaming, “so we can continue to really [achieve] the idea of a democracy, of the American dream and the California dream.”

SPORTS RETURN
Ahead of the return to in-person learning was the resumption of outdoor high school sports practices and games, which began again across California in March after a yearlong hiatus. Later, as the state continued to enjoy a lull in coronavirus cases, officials also permitted indoor sports.
Though teams had to abide by numerous restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the ensuing seasons held multiple points of success for both Burroughs and Burbank High School. The Bulldogs won their first water polo title since 1969 when the boys’ team finished the Pacific League with a perfect 8-0 record. The Bears varsity girls’ basketball team advanced as far as the CIF Southern Section 2AA semifinal game, faltering 69-59 against Cajon High of San Bernardino.
In the private school sector, the boys’ cross country team at Providence High School captured its first championship win since 1976.

VACCINE MANDATES DEBATED

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Ron Jefferies, longtime patron of the Blue Room, visited the bar again in June, after statewide coronavirus-related rules on capacity limits, physical distancing and face coverings were lifted.

The beginning of 2021 introduced what epidemiologists called a major tool against the pandemic: the COVID-19 vaccine. Access to shots was limited at first by insufficient supply, but as more doses arrived to California, additional populations became eligible.
However, while the vast majority of eligible Burbank residents sought out vaccination appointments, some in the city’s own departments expressed reluctance to do so. Mirroring other jurisdictions, the Burbank City Council agreed in September to implement a policy requiring municipal workers to submit to regular coronavirus testing unless they are vaccinated. That policy, which went into effect in December, was later followed by other policies mandating vaccinations for all city employees and some contract laborers who do not have an eligible exemption.
The vaccine mandate for city workers attracted criticism from their labor groups and some council members, who passed the policy by a 3-2 vote. However, it is not expected to go into effect until later this year.
The subject of a vaccine mandate was less contentious among members of the BUSD Board of Education, which in September unanimously passed such a policy for district employees, saying doing so would help prevent another shutdown of schools. The district placed dozens of workers who remained unvaccinated and without a valid exemption after the deadline passed on unpaid leave in October, though the vast majority of employees had received their shots.
The board appeared prepared to issue a similar mandate for vaccine-eligible students, but deferred the move after California officials announced a statewide policy in October. The earliest that requirement will begin is July 1.

BURBANK BRIDGE RETURNS
The Burbank Boulevard Bridge reopened in November, once again connecting two major areas of the city with each other and the 5 Freeway.
Expanded to fit the widened freeway, the Burbank Boulevard bridge now has a total of 10 lanes, up from six. Vehicles can use three of the lanes in each direction to travel along the boulevard, and two in each direction to turn toward the 5 Freeway. The bridge also includes a bike lane and a 10-foot sidewalk on one side.
The California Department of Transportation, also known as Caltrans, demolished the bridge in April 2020 as part of its effort to widen the freeway with new carpool lanes, which are projected to open in 2022.
“We are extremely grateful to the community — residents, leaders, city leaders, businesses — for their understanding and their patience,” said Caltrans spokesman Michael Comeaux.
“We recognize that it is challenging to have construction underway where you live and where you work, and we are looking forward to residents and workers and businesses in Burbank being able to benefit from these wonderful enhancements, which we hope will serve the public well for many, many years to come.”

HOUSING TO REPLACE FRY’S

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
After Fry’s Electronics closed its doors — including at a Burbank location known for its themed decorations — a developer applied to redevelop the site into a mixed-use project with hundreds of apartment units. Though some residents challenged the project, the city ultimately gave it the go-ahead.

But as some Burbank fixtures returned, others disappeared. Fry’s Electronics, a retail chain known for its stores’ extravagant decorations, announced in February that it was closing locations nationwide, citing industry changes and pandemic-related challenges.
Many community members lamented the announcement, taking to social media to share their affection for the business’ Burbank location, which was themed after an alien invasion and took some inspiration from the classic sci-fi film “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
The massive Hollywood Way lot where the building is located, however, will not remain inactive for long. In October, the city approved the Burbank Aero Crossings project, which will bring 862 apartments — 80 of which will be allocated for very low-income households — as well as two restaurants and office space. Despite concerns from residents, including a group that unsuccessfully appealed the development to the City Council, worried that the project would strain the city’s water supply and emergency services, developer LaTerra Development LLC received permission to proceed with the roughly $500 million plan.
The City Council’s decision on the appeal was limited in part by California housing rules that limit cities’ ability to deny certain projects submitted under their provisions.
Construction is anticipated to begin in late 2022 and finish in about two and a half years.

PICKWICK PROPOSAL ALARMS NEIGHBORS
The city of Burbank’s tension with state housing laws in 2021 was not exclusive to the Burbank Aero Crossings project. Caught between mandates from Sacramento aiming to address California’s housing crisis and the activism of Burbank homeowners determined to keep their single-family neighborhoods, officials have for years struggled to retain local control of residential development.
But when a developer notified the city that it planned to turn the historic Pickwick Bowl property into 98 townhome units, the issue returned to the forefront. Rancho district residents’ concerns about the project’s potential impact on the equestrian community grew when they learned the developer would submit an application through Senate Bill 35, a California law that prevents cities from denying eligible housing developments unless the proposal conflicts with preexisting local housing regulations.
“This is too big for our little world,” Rancho resident and realtor Jay Geisenheimer said about the proposed project during a November City Council meeting regarding SB 35.
Recently, a majority of the council signaled a desire to have a major role in reviewing applications submitted under SB 35’s provisions, overseeing staff members’ analyses regarding whether projects qualify for the law and meet Burbank’s development regulations.

DISTRICT HIRES DEI CONSULTANT

Photo courtesy Stefani McCoy
Stefani McCoy, who attended John Burroughs High, returned to her hometown to lead the Burbank Unified School District’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.

The BUSD board unanimously appointed a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant in October, fulfilling a goal the district had pursued since 2020 as part of its DEI initiative.
Stefani McCoy, the coordinator, is no stranger to Burbank, having attended George Washington Elementary School, Luther Burbank Middle School and John Burroughs High School. She said in an interview with the Leader that she’s on a mission “to ensure that we have equity across the board and access to every student here.
“This is the most exciting opportunity ever because now that I have an understanding of race, ethnicity, equity, inclusion, diversity, I can now go back to my alma mater and make some changes,” McCoy added.
McCoy, who identifies as a queer Black woman, believes there is a need for cultural understanding in the classroom, a realization that came to her while going for a master’s degree at New York University.
The opportunity for many school districts across the nation to begin such a change came in 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the widespread calls for police reform. McCoy was encouraged to see so many, including students, taking to the streets.

TINHORN FLATS EVICTED

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Lucas Lepejian, the 20-year-old son of Tinhorn Flats owner Baret Lepejian, removed a latch city workers placed on the restaurant’s door in April. He would be arrested multiple times on suspicion of violating a court order.

The saga of Tinhorn Flats Saloon and Grill appeared to largely reach its conclusion in June when the restaurant found itself evicted from the Magnolia Park property.
Tinhorn Flats thrust itself into the public eye in December 2020 when owner Baret Lepejian announced that Tinhorn Flats would not comply with county and state outdoor dining bans established to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The next several months were a whirlwind of sometimes-weekly developments in Burbank’s feud with the restaurant, which escalated after Tinhorn Flats lost its county and municipal permits. Police thrice arrested Lepejian’s son, who helped run the business while his father remained in Thailand, after he continued to operate Tinhorn Flats in violation of a court order — even sawing off city-placed locks to do so.
The restaurant’s defiance attracted crowds of supporters protesting against government health orders. The weekly demonstrations infuriated many neighbors and business owners, who objected to protesters’ denial of the pandemic and the noise they produced.
But Tinhorn Flats officially departed Burbank when Isabelle Lepejian, Baret’s former wife and the property owner, evicted him for failing to retrieve his permit from the city. In November, she sold the plot to Old Fashioned Investment, LLC, whose owner said he plans to open a new restaurant there with a similarly rustic atmosphere.
Tinhorn Flats’ legal battles with Burbank and Los Angeles County continue. Both sued Lepejian for keeping the restaurant open despite losing his required permits. He has countersued both governments, alleging that his constitutional rights were violated.

DEADLY CRASH SHAKES COMMUNITY

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
A November event dedicated a memorial to three young people killed in a crash on Glenoaks Boulevard and Andover Drive. Burbank resident Jaiden Johnson and John Burroughs High School alumnus Cerain Baker, whose likenesses were captured on a city utility box, were among those who died in the August crash.

An August crash on Glenoaks Boulevard that killed three young people renewed calls from community members demanding Burbank officials address reckless driving.
The fatal collision on Glenoaks Boulevard and Andover Drive, which occurred the night of Aug. 3, killed Burbank resident Jaiden Johnson, 20; Pasadena resident and John Burroughs High School alumnus Cerain Baker, 21; and Calabasas resident Natalee Moghaddam, 19. Burbank police said they believe the victims’ car was struck by two other vehicles that were street racing. Both drivers — including one juvenile — were charged with three counts of murder.
Though the Burbank Police Department indicated that collisions occurred less frequently in 2021 than in previous years, residents said they’ve witnessed speeding and street racing on major thoroughfares for years. The BPD recorded seven fatal crashes in 2021, up from three in both 2020 and 2019.
In December, the City Council instructed city staff members to proceed with a number of infrastructure upgrades to Glenoaks and other streets. Many of the Glenoaks improvements are scheduled to start construction in the fall.
Friends and family members of the three victims, as well as some Burbank activists, have organized rallies, meetings and vigils in the months following the crash. No one else, many have said, should have to experience a similar loss.
“These things change through legislation and our votes, and we need to hold accountable the people who turn a blind eye to these tragedies,” comedian Aida Rodriguez, a friend of Cerain Baker’s father Tony, said during a demonstration in mid-August. “And we can march, we can revolt, we can draw signs, but until these people who are in office make it a priority to make a change in our community … these things will not change.”

— Oscar Areliz contributed to this compilation of reports.