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Kaelyn Duesterbeck, a registered nurse at Mercyhealth, speaks with a person from whom she took a sample for COVID-19 testing at a drive-thru testing station at Mercyhealth North in Janesville earlier this year. Duesterbeck of Delavan has five kids ages 5 and younger at home, and she said in the spring that she was trying hard not to spread the virus to her family.

Taking stock of a trying year

Reporters interview hundreds of people and write dozens of stories in a year’s time.

Some are drudgery; others are a delight. Some become favorites they’ll never forget.

Here are some articles Gazette reporters chose as favorites from 2020:

Benjamin Pierce

Headline: Janesville nurse thankful for Mother’s Day, health amid COVID-19

Date: May 9.

Synopsis: Kaelyn Duesterbeck, a mother and Mercyhealth nurse, said Mother’s Day would mean more to her in 2020 because of all of the challenges for health care workers in the pandemic.

Reporter’s thoughts: I think this story humanized frontline workers and reminded me—and hopefully readers—that these people truly are battling something larger than life and continue to fight the virus despite the risk. It was also a reminder to me of how blessed I am to have the mother and family that I do.

Jonah Beleckis

Headline: Birds Eye food processing plant suspends most operations amid virus outbreak

Date: April 19, updated April 23.

Synopsis: One Saturday in April, a Birds Eye food-processing plant employee shared with The Gazette internal company emails about a COVID-19 outbreak at the plant. It was breaking news on what became one of the largest publicly known virus outbreaks in the area.

Reporter’s thoughts: This is why a newspaper is valuable to its community. A Birds Eye employee called me with concerns about how the company was handling a COVID-19 outbreak. It wasn’t until our story published online that a spokesperson called me back after 9 p.m. that Saturday to say the plant would be temporarily shutting down most operations. Walworth County’s health department learned of the outbreak through The Gazette’s story.

This was early on in the pandemic. The employee demanded to share the documents in person. I didn’t have a mask at this point. I was nervous. But I grabbed a bandanna and kitchen gloves to make the meeting happen. The community needed to know what was going on.

Anna Marie Lux

Headline: Nature preserve will honor Quinney family farm

Date: May 17.

Synopsis: Richard Quinney could not let the story of his family farm disappear.

Three years ago, he sold most of the 160 acres in Walworth County’s town of Sugar Creek to a neighbor. But the Madison man couldn’t imagine losing all the fields, woods and pond he explored as a child, so he secured a 5-acre portion of the farm and decided to create a nature preserve on the private site.

Reporter’s thoughts: Quinney’s story was one of my favorites in 2020 because it is so full of love for the land and the people who worked it for four generations.

At a time when family farms often get sold and forgotten, the 86-year-old Quinney saved a piece to keep it close in his daily life and to share it with a new generation.

Ashley McCallum

Headline: The long haul: Janesville Parker student still recovering from COVID-19

Date: Oct. 19.

Synopsis: Ava Pennycook, a 15-year-old competitive cheerleader at Parker High School, tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer but is still feeling symptoms months later. Her health has held her back from cheering, school and learning how to drive. She is someone who is considered a “long hauler,” a type of patient doctors are just starting to learn about.

Reporter’s thoughts: Choosing a favorite story this year, for me, feels like choosing between stepping on a rusty nail or drinking a carton of milk three weeks past its expiration date.

As The Gazette’s health reporter, I have spent an overwhelming majority of my reduced work time thinking, talking and writing about COVID-19. I have been the community’s journalism grim reaper, reporting on death and illness with some run-of-the-mill government reporting sprinkled in there. If I am giving you a call, it is likely we won’t be having a pleasant conversation.

I hated that I had to meet Ava under such circumstances, but I am impressed at how brave and honest she was with me. I think Ava’s story put a lot into perspective for people, making them realize that COVID-19 can harm anyone at any age. Unfortunately, my story brought some undeserved online harassment to Ava’s family, and that weighs heavily on my shoulders.

For the people who reached out to me or the Pennycooks with kind words and support, I thank you. To those who spouted baseless conspiracies or harmful words to a teenager online, you need to get a grip. Let’s go into 2021 being more reasonable, grateful and kind human beings.

Frank Schultz

Headline: Black fathers talk about their children, their fear and ‘The Talk’

Date: June 19.

Synopsis: For Father’s Day, in light of the nationwide focus on racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, local Black fathers discussed a fear they all hold for their children. (Note: Father’s Day was June 21, a Sunday.)

Reporter’s thoughts: This year taught white Americans that if they thought the nation’s race problems were largely solved, they were wrong.

I had read about Black parents’ fears: that their children—especially their sons—were at risk every time they left their homes, and how they make a point of talking to their kids about how a Black person has to be extra careful when dealing with police.

All the Black fathers I approached had something to say: Yes, they worry every day that their children might not come home to them. I thought it was important for readers in a quiet, low-crime area to know that their neighbors deal with this fear every day of their lives.

Neil Johnson

Headline: Am I doing this work-from-home thing right?

Date: April 8.

Synopsis: Gazette reporter shares the challenges he and his wife experience while working from home and caring for twin boys.

Reporter’s thoughts: Depending on your own COVID-19 pandemic circumstances this year, it might have brought you little comic relief to read about how a Gazette reporter is way more clueless than you when it comes to navigating our “new normal”: juggling work, family life and the rigors of young children doing virtual learning—all at home, all right on top of each other.

Although my April 8 column might have cast some doubts, I eventually did get out of the bathroom that my twin sons locked me inside of during one of their virtual school days at home. I learned a few things, too. For one, I’m not a teacher, and I have no idea how teachers deal with my kids. My hot take: Teachers—my speech-therapist wife included—are way more amazing than I am.

The other thing I learned, and it’s not really hard news, is that this pandemic has forced us all to be a little closer to the lives of those we live with. I’ve been thankful for some extra time with my family, even if it didn’t make me a better (or even passable) teacher.

Trump's hesitation on relief bill will delay aid payments


The $900 billion economic relief package that President Donald Trump signed over the weekend will deliver vital aid to millions of struggling households and businesses. Yet his nearly one-week delay in signing the bill means that it will take that much longer for the financial support to arrive.

The package that Trump signed at his private club in Florida on Sunday will extend two unemployment benefit programs providing aid to 14 million people that expired last week. It will also provide small-business loans and up to $600 in cash payments to most individuals. In addition, it extends a moratorium on evictions for one month. The measure does not include aid for states and localities that are being forced to turn to layoffs and service cuts as their tax revenue dries up—a potential long-run drag on the economy.

The legislation extends the two federal jobless aid programs until mid-March and adds a $300 supplemental weekly payment. But because Trump signed the bill Sunday, a day after the two programs lapsed, that could cost the unemployed a week of benefits, with payments not restarting until next week.

“The date was really unfortunate,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a workers’ advocacy group. “Now there’s some question as to when this gets paid out.”

It is possible that the Labor Department will interpret the law to allow payments for the week ending Jan. 2, Evermore said. But if the bill had been signed Saturday, payments clearly could have restarted this week.

And it will likely take two to three weeks for states to update their computer systems to resume the aid programs and pay out the extra $300, Evermore said, a process that could have started earlier, after Congress first approved the bill about a week ago.

The delay will force those out of work to make hard decisions about paying for food, medicine or rent.

“These are people who have been living in poverty for months,” she said. “Any delay is an immense hardship.”

Months from now, economists say, the widespread distribution and use of vaccines could potentially unleash a robust economic rebound as the virus is quashed, businesses reopen, hiring picks up and consumers spend freely again. Yet the aid likely won’t last long enough to support struggling small businesses and the unemployed until the vaccine has been broadly distributed and a strong rebound has begun.

“Some aid is better than no aid,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “It’s positive. But it’s likely going to be insufficient to bridge the gap from today until late spring or early summer, when the health situation fully improves.”

President-elect Joe Biden has said he will seek another relief package soon after his inauguration next month, setting up another political brawl given that some Senate Republicans have said that with vaccines on the way, further government aid might not be needed.

The new aid package should boost the broader economy, according to Goldman Sachs. Economists at the investment bank said late Sunday that they are boosting their growth forecast for the first three months of next year to 5% at an annual rate, up from an earlier estimate of 3%.

Much of that upgrade is based on the inclusion of $600 stimulus checks, Goldman economists said.

Right now, however, the economy is in a renewed slump as a resurgent virus intensifies hardships for businesses. Consumers have cut back on shopping, traveling, dining out, and attending sports and entertainment events. Key measures of the economy—retail sales, applications for jobless aid, travel spending—have weakened.

Roughly 14 million Americans faced a cutoff of their federal unemployment benefits if Congress hadn’t agreed to the new package after months of stalemate. Perhaps 2 million Americans would have been able to transfer to a state-run extended benefit program, but the rest would have had no income at all. More than 4 million have already used all the unemployment aid available to them, which lasts 26 weeks in most states; they will be able to reapply.

A program that provides unemployment aid for self-employed and contract workers will now pay benefits for 50 weeks, up from 39. A federal program that provides extended benefits, on top of the 26 provided by most states, will also last for another 11 weeks.

Kathy Richardson, 60, hopes to catch up on the car and rental payments that she has fallen behind on now that she can reapply for unemployment benefits. She started receiving jobless aid in the spring after she was laid off from her executive assistant job at a dental practice, but the benefits ran out in November.

“If it hadn’t been for family and friends, I’d be homeless,” she said. “It’s been very stressful.”

Richardson, who lives in Overland, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, had a Zoom interview for a new administrative job Monday and was hopeful about her prospects. She has applied for work at Walmart, Target and Burger King, she said, but was turned down because those companies assume she will quit once she can find a job more consistent with her career.

Her 18-year old son received Christmas presents from her three sisters this year, but not from her.

“I told him, ‘Maybe we’ll have a special Christmas in July after I’ve gone back to work,’” Richardson said.

The much larger rescue package the government enacted in March was widely credited with averting a disaster. By injecting money quickly into the pockets of individual Americans, it served to reduce poverty. But as much of that aid expired over the summer, poverty grew. Many people ran through the $1,200 direct payment checks that had been distributed in April and May. And a supplemental $600 in jobless benefits expired over the summer.

According to research by Bruce Meyer at the University of Chicago and two colleagues, the U.S. poverty rate jumped from 9.3% in June to 11.7% in November—an increase of nearly 8 million people.

The new relief package restores the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to many businesses. But many small businesses complain that the program in the past was too restrictive, requiring them to use most of the money on payroll and not enough for other such expenses as rent, the cost of personal protective equipment or other supplies.

According to the data firm Womply, about 1 in 5 small businesses have closed since early spring. More than half of small businesses have just two months’ cash on hand or less, and 1 in 6 has two weeks or less of cash, according to a survey by the Census Bureau.

“It’s not stimulus—it’s a survival plan,’’ Michael Graetz, a Columbia University law professor who studies tax and social policies, said of the new relief package. “Will it allow people to survive for a little longer than they would have otherwise, given what was about to happen at the end of the year? The answer is yes. Not doing it would have been malpractice.’’

A nurse holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine at La Bonne Maison de Bouzanton care home in Mons, Belgium, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. The vaccine, developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, was transported from a hospital in Leuven to the residential care home on Monday, as Belgium begins its vaccination program starting with the most vulnerable. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)

The U.S. Capitol in Washington is shown Thursday. Lawmakers last week passed a nearly $1 trillion economic relief bill, but President Donald Trump didn’t sign it until Sunday.

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United Way leaders worry about shortfall in donations in pandemic year


Local United Way officials are worried about the organization’s annual fundraising efforts in a year that continues to bring a flood of need by the community’s most vulnerable.

The United Way Blackhawk Region reports its 2020 community fundraising campaign as of Monday has netted $1.2 million, about half of its $2.4 million goal this year.

That is as the United Way says calls to its local 211 helpline have more than tripled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with increases in people seeking assistance with rent, food security, temporary housing and utility payment support, and mental health and substance abuse assistance.

The agency uses donated funds in setting its own budget and mapping out allocations of funds to dozens of small, local social service nonprofits that serve vulnerable populations.

United Way Blackhawk Region President and CEO Mary Fanning-Penny said the agency is awaiting the outcome of office fundraising campaigns, so-called “workplace giving” by local businesses that partner with United Way’s community campaign.

As a revenue stream, employee giving and matching funds donated by the companies where they work typically fuel a lion’s share—about 80%—of the United Way’s fundraising.

Fanning-Penny said indicators tracked by United Way’s donor specialists show a “significant decline” in workplace giving. She said it has got the agency worried it could be short in its fundraising when the campaign closes a few months from now.

If that is the case, agency officials say it would mean cuts to programs and funding to nonprofits that the United Way supports, she said.

Fanning-Penny said the pandemic has created a surge in need that has stretched nonprofits thin, but it has also isolated and stretched thin local workers whose charitable office campaigns have long been considered the United Way’s fundraising bread and butter.

“It’s not for lack of affinity for United Way’s mission,” Fanning-Penny said. “There are employees who are working remotely, there are corporate partners that have had furloughs. Two of our largest partners are healthcare systems. Their employees are being spread very thin, and they may be struggling with their own fatigue or morale. All these challenges that employees are facing within the workplace don’t necessarily lend well to philanthropy.”

Fanning-Penny announced one big-ticket donation by a local family of $100,000. Aside from that, the United Way already knows private events some local companies hold to benefit the United Way’s fundraising have been a virtual washout this year.

“Employees would get together in a break room or they’d have a picnic or have activities, Taco Tuesdays, and events like that. They’d do those kinds of things that would be fundraisers and special events for the (United Way) campaign. Because of COVID-19 and safety precautions, those events haven’t been available this year.”

Fanning-Penny said the inability for companies to organize such in-kind fundraisers represents a “significant amount of money”—perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars—that has been eliminated.

The prospect of a shortfall is especially troubling because United Way reported that it fell a few hundred thousand dollars shy in its community campaign goal in 2019—a year during which the agency said some of its largest local corporate partners backed away from workplace giving campaigns amid a sea change in ownership of some of those businesses.

Another shortfall would sting as the United Way hopes to galvanize its programs and make two full years of allocations to partner nonprofits through grants that cover everything from rent assistance to food support.

Fanning-Penny said the United Way still has time to try to hit its goal, but it will be a race between now and the end of the first quarter of 2021, when the agency would like to decide how it will allocate resources.

Fanning-Penny said people still can donate to the United Way via text message or online platforms the agency offers, and the agency will continue to accept traditional donations that come from local companies or individuals.