The Observer stayed busy online in 2020. Here are the top stories of the year from YourObserver.com.
Whew! 2020 is over, and we’re all grateful.
The COVID-19 pandemic was of course the biggest discussion this year. From the first local cases and shutdowns to conversations about school and beach closures and reopenings, our readers couldn’t stop talking about it — and neither could we.
But luckily, plenty of (slightly) more upbeat, local happenings took over our website and social media throughout the year. We bring you a roundup of our top YourObserver.com stories from 2020.
Come sail away with me
Somehow, our ongoing article tracking all the COVID-19 cases in Sarasota and Manatee counties since March was bested in terms of page views on our website.
In September, two Longboat residents were sailing a newly purchased sailboat back up from Punta Gorda when the wind became overpowering. They took a dinghy back to shore but were flung onto the deck after a wave caused the boat to fly into the air. The sailboat washed ashore with a hole, a broken anchor and a dysfunctional inboard motor.
The boat’s owner contacted towing companies to remove it but had no luck due to weather conditions and pricing. More than a month later, the sailboat still stood, and its owner was charged with a first-degree misdemeanor in failing to remove the vessel. But another couple weeks later, the owner was let off the hook of removing the sailboat — thanks to Tropical Storm Eta. The boat was destroyed, with debris scattered across the beach until a tow crew removed remaining pieces.
Drive you crazy
Remember the very beginning of the year, when COVID-19 was barely a conversation? Well, back in January and February — which either feels like a few weeks or a few decades ago — traffic was the biggest thing on our mind.
The end of 2019 and first few months of 2020 saw traffic routinely backed up on the eastbound leg of the Ringling Causeway, especially during the afternoon rush, after a left turn lane at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue was closed for traffic-flow changes related to the roundabout project at Fruitville Road. Barrier islanders even experienced sitting near-motionless for 30 minutes while trying to get to the mainland.
Longboat and St. Armands leaders questioned the roundabout decision, and Sarasota City Hall received a flurry of emails and phone calls, complaining about the possibility of near-continuous tough traffic conditions. And no matter how the city responded, residents had a lot to say — and made sure their voices were heard.
Food, glorious food
When all else fails, food is a great go-to. And whether you love to cook yourself or to go out and enjoy someone else’s cooking, new local eateries and stores are always a big deal.
Longboat, ever known for its limited options, saw a new restaurant open in January. Whitney’s took over a long-empty former Chevron gas station on the north end of the Key and turned it into a casual, beachy spot serving freshly made items including all-day breakfast, tacos, burgers and seafood as well as offering a bodega-styled grocery. The January opening got residents and visitors alike excited.
Over in Lakewood Ranch comes Sarasota Burns Court’s Owen’s Fish Camp, which had been looking for the perfect spot for a second location for five years. It’s expected to open in the spring in the new Center Point development, which will bring another three or four sit-down restaurants. But don’t you worry — Owen’s is making sure its “Florida Cracker decor” and backyard bluegrass music are coming with it.
In February, specialty natural and organic grocery chain Earth Fare announced it was closing all stores, including its Lakewood Ranch location that just opened in January 2018 to great fanfare, and man, were people talking. There was some disappointment in its shutting down, of course, but the opportunity for a new grocer left locals ecstatic. Votes were made for Detwiler’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and even Wegmans, whose closest supermarket is in North Carolina, but the winner was Winn Dixie, which opened in November. Many are hoping it will bring healthy competition to Publix.
Double, double, toil and trouble
Sometimes all it takes is a little bubble bath to brighten your day, but make sure to keep it within the confines of your own bathtub,
In September, someone decided to go elsewhere with their bubbles and gave Lakewood Ranch Main Street a surprise. The Main Street fountain was overflowing with bubbles, which blew in clumps down the street and even floated in the air like clouds above a neighboring lake. Who poured bubble solution into the water remains a mystery.
Even as Tyler and Amy Clites entered a competition of top amateur Lego builders from across the country, Amy Clites believed her husband was one of the best Lego builders in the country, if not the world.
Now she has the trophy, and the $100,000 first-place award, to prove it.
The Myakka City couple was named the champion of “Lego Masters” in April. (And who doesn’t love some local celebrities?) They spent two months designing and building challenges over the 10-episode competition. Their final build, called “Treasure of the Griffin,” featured a griffin (a legendary creature with the body, tail and back legs of a lion and the head, wings and talons of an eagle) protecting its nest of babies from a lizard monster attack. Their winning statue will be displayed at Legoland New York Resort, slated to open in early 2021.
When George Floyd, and unarmed Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black medical worker, was fatally shot by police in Louisville, Ky., in her home, people took to the streets across the world to protest.
In Sarasota, a series of peaceful protests were held, including some organized by the Sarasota-Manatee Black Lives Matter Alliance and the Rodney Mitchell Foundation, a nonprofit formed after Rodney Mitchell was fatally shot by Sarasota sheriff deputies following a traffic stop in 2012.
The protesters marched through the streets rain or shine and heard words from organizers, allies and spoken word poets concerning injustice and the need for change.
Rain, rain, go away
With 19 days left in hurricane season, 2020 had to give us another punch.
After hitting Central America as a Category 4 hurricane, Tropical Storm Eta made its way through the gulf and came through the area Nov. 11. After an evening and night of wind, rain and rising waters, many longtime Longboat residents said it was the worst flooding they had seen — mostly thanks to unfortunate timing of a lunar high tide. Social media posts from residents showed several instances of water rising over seawalls and into homes. In total, 222 homes experienced some level of flood-water intrusion.
You’re the swan I want
You didn’t really think we were going to have a Florida story roundup without mentioning wildlife, did you?
After a few years of little luck in increasing Longboat’s swan population, unofficial swan keeper David Novak released two new waterfowl to Harbourside Golf Course in November.
Back in May, Greta the swan had one cygnet, the first in two years on Longboat Key. But unfortunately, the cygnet died in July after a brush with a fishing hook, a year after Greta and Clark produced no viable cygnets.
The two new swans were named after philanthropists Charles and Margery Barancik, who were killed in a car crash on the island in December 2019.
Chuck and Margie bring the total swans on the island to 10, and Novak hopes that the mated pair will have more success with cygnets and will bring the population back up to 16 or 17 in the next couple of years.