Top Stories 2020: A pandemic alters our way of life

As the annual holiday festivities subsided with the start of January, business began to return to normal across the North Fork. On. Jan. 1,at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead, newly elected town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar spoke of her commitment to the “health, welfare and safety of our residents.”

In Southold Town, a standing-room-only audience packed into Town Hall as Supervisor Scott Russell, and councilwomen Jill Doherty and Sarah Nappa took their oaths of office. Soon after, the new board began discussing issues at hand, such as the future of “McMansions.”

No one knew it at the time, but thousands of miles away, the first cases of a never-before-seen coronavirus had begun spreading in China, setting the stage for a global pandemic that would disrupt nearly everything about our everyday life just a few months later.

By early March, Suffolk County’s first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by severe contagious acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, was confirmed in a Greenport resident who would be hospitalized at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.

So much remained unknown about COVID-19 in those early days. Social distancing had not yet entered the lexicon. Health experts initially advised people to avoid wearing face masks, fearing the supplies available for health care workers could rapidly dwindle. Household supplies like paper towels, toilet paper and Clorox wipes were wiped clean from stores. Testing for COVID-19 remained very limited and officials urged residents to remain calm.

“There is no reason for alarm,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said at an early March press conference.

Within one month of the first Suffolk case, the new reality became all too clear as nonessential businesses shut down, schools hurriedly adapted to remote learning and people isolated inside, unable to be with loved ones.

And the scale of the tragedy quickly set in. By April 7, the number of fatalities in a single day in Suffolk County surpassed 60. Across New York, there were more than 700 fatalities that day. The numbers would climb to over 1,000 a day.

The ProHealth COVID-19 drive-thru site in Riverhead. (Credit: Tara Smith)

“But you have to remember every number there’s a human being behind that and a family,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in early April, as the daily update on the number of fatalities already began to feel numbing.

As testing capacity increased and the number of cases rapidly climbed from March into April, the question became when the apex would arrive, the point at which cases would steadily begin to decline as people adhered to social distance guidelines and face masks became required in public.

On March 22, Suffolk reached 1,000 positive cases in one day for the first time. For the entire state, after one of the highest single-day totals of more than 10,000 positive cases on April 24, the number of cases steadily declined and hovered under 1,000 through late spring, summer and into fall as the curve flattened.

Healthcare workers perform an outdoor COVID-19 test outside the County Center in Riverside Monday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

On top of the health crisis, the economic fallout began to set in as businesses were forced to adapt to try to survive. Restaurants began offering takeout and delivery services. Stores mapped out one-way aisles and markers to designate where to stand to remain six feet apart. Grocery stores installed plexiglass near registers for an added layer of protection.

And as the cases slowed, the focus shifted to how to safely reopen. Mr. Cuomo introduced a four-part New York Forward reopening plan that began with construction, manufacturing and curbside retail stores. Over two-week periods, more and more businesses began to reopen.

By mid-June, Mr. Bellone announced a major milestone as the county reached its first day without a COVID-19-related fatality. And about two weeks later, for the first time, two consecutive days were recorded without a fatality.

But experts cautioned the crisis was far from over, and as the weather began to cool in late fall and people headed back indoors, the gradual climb in cases began across the county and state. But as winter arrived, so did hope, with the first shipments of an FDA-approved vaccine developed by Pfizer.

For thousands of New Yorkers, however, the damage had already been done. As of mid-December, more than 900,000 New Yorkers had tested positive for COVID-19 and 36,000 had died.