2020 A Year In Review

O'Neill water tower being taken down was one of the memorable events that 2020 had to offer. The tower was taken down in July.

 2020 was a year we all were not sad to let go. It started as usual and then as we all know we were hit with the Covid-19 virus which changed the course for all of us. Now as we look to 2021 we see glimmers of hope of returning to some state of normal with the vaccination progress starting.

The first week of Jan. 2020 saw a major winter storm with reports of 15 inches of snow and 40 mile an hour winds. The first baby of 2020 came on Jan. 2 Baby Matthew Eby was born; a 2.9 magnitude earthquake happened just south of Chambers on Jan.1 to get things rumbling for the new year.

The Fenian's Women's Auxillary announced its fundraising efforts for a statue of John O'Neill. The Holt County Supervisors approved a spot on the courthouse grounds for the sculpture.

The Chamber of Commerce closed out the last week of January with their banquet in a new format being held in a shorter form. The Handlebend facility got things going announcing their progress and plans for the Shelhammer building.

In February, the first week saw Governor Pete Ricketts honor the O'Neill and Spencer Fire Departments for their actions in the 2019 floods and collapse of the Spencer Dam facility in March of that year. The first girder was laid on the new bridge near the Niobrara River's permanent crossing. The bridge was completed in November of 2020. The second week of February saw the completion of the O'Neill High Schools' new gymnasium.  The Holt County supervisors reviewed their road agreement with TC Energy.   After a short meeting, the board came out of session; Holt County Supervisor Steve Boshart stated that no decisions were made in the meeting. The road haul agreement was drawn up on Oct. 15 of 2019. Much of the TC Energy proposed agreement was similar to the one that the Supervisors had seen with the Wind Farm project's agreement. TC Energy spokesman Robert Latimer said the company is looking to pay for road improvements, repairs and even help with the Stuart-Naper Bridge's rebuilding that would be a main construction route of the project. "If it works for us, we want it to work for you guys too, especially when it comes to that bridge," said Latimer. The supervisors led by Boshart went page by page over the agreement discussing liabilities encompassing every part of the project concerning the use of Holt County and township roads. The supervisors questioned the TC Energy representatives on the road to the pump station. Latimer said they would be investing $1.5 million in building up the road to the station and would help with the cost of snow removal on roads to the proposed pump station as it is on a township road. Latimer agreed TC Energy would be okay with that as it would be critical to the project's operation.

The first week of March saw the Supervisors deny their permit. The final option is for TransCanada to request a variance. The granting of variances is expressly provided  within Holt County's zoning regulations. A variance can be granted upon such terms and conditions as the Zoning Board and the Board of Supervisors see fit. The local boards could say, for example, TransCanada will be granted the variance if:

1. They follow the sound judgment of the board of sworn appraisers and pay the landowners what is owed.

2. They sign a satisfactory road haul agreement with the county.

3. They post a bond to cover the county for expenses incurred as a result of the pipeline construction or operation.

4. They agree to never use the pipeline to pump Holt County's water away from her citizens.

5. They agree to reasonable setbacks so that the pipeline avoids contaminating existing water wells.

The week of St. Patrick's day the world as we knew it changed. The week started fine with the Mr. Shamrock contest going off but by the end of the week and the Covid-19 cases starting to affect Nebraska the celebration was called off for public safety. President Trump on Friday declared that the coronavirus pandemic is a national emergency, a designation that freed up as much as $50 billion in federal assistance to state and local governments overwhelmed by the spread of the virus and made it easier to surge medical resources to areas that needed them most.

The state government shutdown campus classes at most colleges in the state and sent some students home with the option of telecommuting for classes.

On Monday, ESU 8 shut down all the schools in its area. In conjunction with the North Central District Health Department and our ESU #8 schools,  all schools in the district would be closed until after Mar. 31. Restrictions on public gatherings were suggested statewide by Governor Pete Ricketts, which prompted the cancellation of the St. Patrick's day parade in O'Neill on Friday. According to local grocers, people in the area bought up all the toilet paper, eggs and milk in O'Neill. Businesses in O'Neill were taking precautions as well. All dental clinics in O'Neill were restricted to seeing emergency patients. Bankfirst and Tri-County bank were doing business through the drive-thru window. Dairy Queen had drive-thru and inside pickup the dining area was closed. The O'Neill City offices and the O'Neill Police Department closed to the public through Apr. 3.  Local places of worship were also affected, with many deciding to cancel services for at least a week. Staff at Avera St. Anthony's Hospital and Avera Medical Group O'Neill Clinic asked that only immediate family members visit patients at the hospital to reduce the possible spread of COVID-19.

April saw the first case of Covid-19 in Antelope County. The O'Neill teachers held a parade driving around town and waving at students to show them everything will be fine and that they missed them. The area health care facilities were shown to be short on Personal Protective gear. Citizens began sending in homemade masks and people with 3-D printers made masks as well.

May started with a person testing positive from Holt County but not living in the county. A graduate cruise night was announced. The hospital resumed doing some procedures after being in lockdown since mid-March. The food pantry saw use up 70 percent due to Covid-19. The O'Neill Rotary Club mobilized and helped recharge the food pantry as part of their service. A cruise night was held to honor graduates with the end of the route at the O'Neill High School.

June saw the directed health measures go to Phase II. There were a few changes in this new mandate with some easements on travel and non-contact sports practice and games allowance later in the month. The City of O'Neill parks board held a meeting to determine if the O'Neill summer softball and baseball programs and the city pool will open. According to the new health measure the pools may open but must adhere to strict distancing guidelines which may be next to impossible to enforce by lifeguards and baseball and softball will fall into similar guidelines that may be impossible to implement and certainly will take the fun out of the programs for this year. Sara Sidak took over as the new City of O'Neill Clerk. O'Neill Ventures was fined and agreed last Wednesday to pay a $400,000 fine as part of a deal to plead guilty to conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants. The City of O'Neill meet in person since the March shutdown from Covid-19. The council decided not to open the O'Neill Pool but did make rules so that some baseball could continue through the summer.

The middle of June saw Atkinson open it's swimming pool. The state moved into phase III which loosened opening up restaurants to 100 percent of occupancy and elective surgery restrictions were also lifted. The Jun. 25 paper saw Holt County get two in county cases of Covid-19.

A 4th of July celebration was held in Stuart with a smaller venue. The O'Neill Water Tower was torn down after 100 years of service. The graduation service was finally held for the O'Neill High School with a limited attendance and masks required for the event. The St. Mary's graduation was held the next week with the same precautions being taken at that event as well. Avera St. Anthony's welcomed Dr. Samantha Luer D.P.M as their new foot and ankle surgeon. The month closed out with Covid-19 cases reaching nine.

The first week in August a plan was announced by the schools for Learning Plans for the 2020-21 school year. The plans work in tandem with the North Central District Health Departments' risk dial. The first of which was announced last week. The current risk dial for Holt County is yellow (moderate), meaning that increasing disease spread or lack of resources warrants enhanced precautions to provide uninterrupted, in-person learning. The yellow risk dial requires mandatory mask wearing for staff and students unless the parents sign an "opt out" form to be kept on file at their child's school. Superintendent Shane states that the board and administration feel it's essential to keep as much normalcy for students as possible while ensuring their health and safety. 

In the middle of August the Holt County Supervisors discussed the possibility of dissolving the township system. The items were discussed but never moved upon. It was announced that 70,000 free meals were served during the pandemic so far by Lunchtime Solutions who serve West Holt and the O'Neill Public School systems. 

Sept. 1, the Covid-19 count in Holt County rose to 24 cases and by the second week to 32. The third week saw OHS hold their homecoming celebration and a truck carrying a nuclear payload of spent fuel rods sneak through town on the evening of Sept. 10. The case count was at 47 for the virus. The last week of Sept. the schools called out for bottled water because of water fountains being shut off for safety reasons. The Covid count shot up to 60.

The first week in October St. Mary's held their homecoming. The Oct. 8 edition showed the Covid-19 cases more than doubled, going over 130 and as of Oct. 22 the count went to 242.

The first week in Nov. saw the pipeline back in the news. The Holt County Board of Adjustments met Thursday, Nov. 5 at the supervisor's chambers to decide on the construction permit of the KXL Pipeline. The board was to decide to either vote to concur or reject that the stipulations have been met that TC Energy has complied with the stipulations set by the Holt Board of Supervisors, reject or the board can ask for stipulations to be set on the granting of the building application permit. In essence, the board denied the construction permit with the addition of variances for KXL to agree to before they would allow the permit. KXL's response was "We're disappointed with today's decision but remain committed to this project. A vote in our favor would have cleared the way for our crews to improve many of the county's roads, as well as fund a large portion of the cost to replace the Stuart-Naper Bridge. We will continue the process of attaining our pipeline construction permit in court, which will unfortunately cost the county significant time and resources." The Covid cases jumped to 370 and five deaths in Holt County were reported. The following week the Board of Adjustments denied the permit. The 2020 General Election was held with a few changes in some county and city positions. Governor Ricketts modified the directed health measures to compensate for the recent high cases of the virus throughout the state and Holt County hit the 500 mark.

December started with a controversial meeting with members of the medical community asking for a mask mandate and the other side arguing their freedom to choose not to do so. The city approved a resolution asking residents to consider wearing a mask.

The year ended out with the delivery of vaccines to local hospitals and Covid-19 cases seemed to stop rising at an alarming rate.


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