Traditionally, the Echo Journal doesn’t pick a top story of the year, but rather publishes a list of highlights from each month.

However, it’s next to impossible not to say that the COVID-19 pandemic and its many effects on all of our lives was the top story of 2020 - and not just locally, but across the world.

Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus students returned from a one-week spring break to learn Sunday, March 15, that schools across the state would be closed for two weeks as COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, started ramping up across the state.

The long-running and highly popular St. Patrick’s Day Parade & Celebration in Crosslake was canceled the day before the Saturday, March 14, event.

Three days later, on Tuesday, March 17, the governor closed dine-in restaurants, bars and other businesses where people gathered. Those came to include salons and barbershops, entertainment venues, gyms and fitness studios, churches and museums among others.

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Gov. Tim Walz later extended the school closings to May 4 and eventually through the end of the school year. Restaurants, bars and other closings were extended to May 1, then to May 18, then to June 1 and beyond.

Restaurants were finally able to reopen June 1, but with outdoor dining only for up to 50 customers. Salons and barbershops were allowed to reopen June 1 with restrictions as well.

The governor initiated a stay-at-home order for Minnesotans from March 27-April 10, extending that order to May 4 and then to May 18, in hopes of biding the state time to establish enough ICU beds and protective equipment at hospitals to be able to treat those with serious cases of COVID-19.

School administrators and teachers used those initial two weeks off to develop distance learning plans, and began teaching students remotely on Monday, March 30, through the end of the school year. Scholarship pageants were canceled/postponed. Scholarship banquets, proms and the spring sports season were canceled.

Graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 were held as an outdoor mobile drive-thru event in Pequot Lakes, outside in the school parking lot at Pine River-Backus and on Facebook Live at Crosslake Community School.

Summer events were canceled one by one, along with summer recreation and youth sports programs. People were advised to gather only in groups of 10 or less. Gradually, the governor “turned the dial” and larger groups were able to gather and dining establishments were allowed to offer indoor dining June 10, though at limited capacity.

Cass County’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 occurred March 21, and Crow Wing County’s first confirmed case was March 31. City halls and public buildings, followed by numerous other businesses, closed to the public and people in all kinds of careers began working from home.

Virtual meetings became the norm on Zoom and other online platforms.

“Social distancing” and “distance learning” became common phrases the state had never heard just weeks earlier. Residents were asked to support local restaurants by using drive-thru services.

Maury Graham, 71, of Pequot Lakes, was Crow Wing County’s first reported death due to COVID-19. He died April 26.

The pandemic persisted into summer with most seasonal events canceled. Some were held in a modified way, including Fourth of July fireworks and Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes.

Area restaurants began voluntarily closing their doors for several days if an employee at these establishments tested positive for COVID-19.

At the end of July came the controversial mandate to wear face masks in public places.

Then came the announcements that school districts could decide how to operate for the new school year, whether it be in-person, a return to distance learning or a hybrid of the two options. Area schools chose hybrid options, with younger students returning to class five days a week, and older students staying home for distance learning in Pine River-Backus while Pequot Lakes students in upper grades combined in-person and distance learning.

Some high school fall sports continued - tennis and cross-country - while football and volleyball seasons were postponed until spring 2021. That decision was later reversed and as tennis and cross-country seasons ended with no state tournaments, football and volleyball got underway with limited numbers of fans allowed to attend.

But by early to mid-November, area schools changed to the distance learning model for all grades (except Pine River-Backus) and winter sports seasons were put on hold because of school staffing shortages and surging COVID-19 cases in the area. Hospitalizations surged and people were strongly urged to cancel Thanksgiving, then Christmas gatherings.

Some area establishments - including the Iron Waffle in Lake Shore, Mission Tavern in Mission Township and the Long Pine Store in rural Backus - defied state mandates and opened anyway, suffering penalties for doing so.

The COVID-19 pandemic was hands-down the top news story of 2020, followed by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck, which led to peaceful demonstrators in Pequot Lakes and Crosslake.

It appears we will kick off 2021 in the same way we are ending 2020, with recommendations to wear face masks, social distance and wash our hands often as more and more people are able to get COVID-19 vaccines. Early year events, including the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza in January and Happy Dancing Turtle’s Back 2 Basics in February, will happen virtually.

Hopes are high that outdoor events, including Crosslake’s WinterFest and St. Patrick’s Day Parade, will go on as planned.

Only time will tell when a new type of normal emerges.

In the meantime, following is a month-by-month look at some of the more important stories that appeared on the pages of the Echo Journal in 2020.

JANUARY

  • Longtime Ideal Township resident and dentist Bob Uppgaard dies Dec. 30, 2019, at age 96.

  • Poor ice conditions means few fish houses on area lakes, concerns about the Jan. 25 Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza and officials urging people not to drive on the frozen lakes. As usual, in the end, cold weather prevailed to build enough ice for the 30th annual Ice Fishing Extravaganza.

  • Jeff Feltmann, owner of the Old Milwaukee Saloon & Eatery in Ideal Corners, receives the 2019 Ideal Community Service Organization’s Volunteer of the Year award.

  • Pine River-Backus girls basketball player Rylie Hirschey scores her 1,000th point for the Tigers on Jan. 24.

FEBRUARY

  • Pequot Lakes/Pine River-Backus Road Crew sophomore wrestlers Caleb Ruhl and Connor Tulenchik earn state wrestling tournament berths in Class 2A.

MARCH

  • Marisa Mulholland is crowned Miss Nisswa at the 48th annual pageant held March 7, while Courtney Weinrich is First Princess and Olivia Gerber is Miss Congeniality. Nisswa Elementary School second-graders Olivia Anderson, Ava Becher and Jolie Aamodt win the title of Little Miss Nisswa.

  • Minnesota and the rest of the United States join the world dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China.

  • The Crosslake City Council cancels the 46th annual Crosslake St. Patrick’s Day Parade a day before the event in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Green-clad people still show up to establishments across the city.

  • Pine River-Backus Superintendent Dave Endicott announces his plan to resign at the end of the school year.

  • Cass County has its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an older resident with no known travel history. The resident is isolated at home.

  • Area schools prepare for distance learning because of the novel coronavirus.

APRIL

  • Lola Rysavy and Thomas Taylor, Pequot Lakes High School seniors, and Sarah Carey and Tyanna LeFebvre, Pine River-Backus High School seniors, are honored as Sourcewell’s Students of Character.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic continues to stymie the lakes area with business and school closures, as well as numerous canceled events.

MAY

  • John Wetrosky, 20-year Pine River Chamber of Commerce executive director, retires from that position. Gavin Gensmer is hired to take over.

  • The Pine River-Backus School District hires a new superintendent when Jonathan Clark, principal at Riverside Elementary School in Brainerd, accepts the job.

  • Pequot Lakes, Pine River-Backus and Crosslake Community schools host graduation events for seniors: a drive-by mobile event in Pequot Lakes (May 22), a parking lot ceremony at Pine River-Backus (May 29) and via Facebook Live for Crosslake (May 29).

  • Chris Palmer - Spanish teacher, high school counselor and adviser for the National Honor Society, Spanish Club and Students Against Destructive Decision Making at Pequot Lakes High School - is named Pequot Lakes Teacher of the Year.

  • County fairs and the Minnesota State Fair are canceled for 2020 along with area music concerts and other annual events. Pine River Duck Races and Nisswa Turtle Races are delayed for now and ultimately canceled.

JUNE

  • Longtime activities directors retire from the Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts - Randy Schwegel from PR-B and Marc Helmrichs from Pequot Lakes.

  • Rylee Norman is crowned Miss Pine River at the annual scholarship pageant that was postponed and then closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions. Jordan Cunningham is First Princess and Miss Congeniality, and Madison Burnard is Second Princess. Barb Klocke serves her last year as pageant chair.

  • Vonnie Tweed is inducted into the Miss Pequot Lakes Hall of Fame in its second year.

  • Sydney Dorion is crowned Miss Pequot Lakes at the annual scholarship pageant that was postponed and then held for immediate family only because of COVID-19 restrictions. Hannah Brown and Madi Fulton are Miss Pequot Lakes Princesses. Brown also wins the Miss Congeniality title.

JULY

  • A modified Stars & Stripes Days takes place in Pequot Lakes, including fireworks, a craft fair and a patriotic march by the American Legion #49 Color Guard. Crosslake also holds its annual Celebrate Crosslake fireworks show.

  • Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes takes place amid COVID-19 restrictions, which has people registering online for a time slot with no more than 250 people in line at one time.

  • The Pineandlakes Echo Journal changes from a Thursday to a Wednesday publication date for the first time ever.

  • Pequot Lakes’ first city administrator, Nancy Malecha, resigns to join Crow Wing County.

AUGUST

  • Ted Lundrigan, longtime Pine River city attorney, dies at age 72.

SEPTEMBER

  • The Nisswa City Council votes to censure Mayor Fred Heidmann, strip him of his committee assignments and ask for his resignation after an incident between Heidmann and police officers during a traffic stop of a third party.

  • School buildings open their doors to students for the first time in six months, with masks required and in hybrid models where younger students are in class daily and older students focus on distance learning, with some attending class in person a couple of days a week.

  • Nisswa Elementary School opens with a new look after completion of a $12 million renovation and expansion project.

OCTOBER

  • Longtime Pequot Lakes City Council member Jerry Akerson dies at age 64, with two years left in his council term.

  • Tim Edinger, of Nisswa, a longtime science teacher for the Brainerd School District, is named the Outstanding Educator of the Year, courtesy of the Brainerd Jaycees and Brainerd Community Action.

NOVEMBER

  • The Pine River-Backus CommUnity meals program serves its 30,000th meal.

  • Voters turn out in record numbers for the 2020 general election.

  • Rich Spiczka, Pequot Lakes Community Education director, is officially hired as Pequot Lakes city administrator.

  • Betty Ryan, well-known to many as a longtime reporter for the Lake Country Echo, dies one day short of her 93rd birthday.

  • The Brainerd Jaycees announce that their Ice Fishing Extravaganza that attracts tens of thousands of anglers to Gull Lake’s Hole-in-the-Day Bay each year will be a virtual event in 2021 because of COVID-19 restrictions.

  • The controversial Line 3 oil pipeline that touches parts of Cass and Crow Wing counties gets the official go-ahead after years of delays.

DECEMBER

  • Alma Christensen, of Pine River and formerly of Pequot Lakes, well-known as “The Lady of the Woods,” dies at age 99.

  • Longtime Echo cartoonist Dan Gola, creator of the Claude & Ernie cartoon, announces he will no longer publish his cartoon - after 28 years - because of ill health.

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.