The shards of this shattered year are counted and measured every day: coronavirus cases, deaths, unemployment figures, business closures and on and on. For each number, there is a story. And in each story, there is something new and frightening, but also timeless and familiar. Life and loss are forever partners, more or less in balance. The pandemic tipped the scales. So did other events in 2020, including a catastrophic explosion in Beirut, Chinese crackdowns in Hong Kong and horrific wildfires from the Rockies to the Pacific. Loss has defined the year. Yet when the clock on 2020 runs out — even with people in lockdown or mourning those taken by the virus — glasses will clink, resolutions will be made and the instinctive optimism of a new year will surround us, if just for that one moment.
The sounds of crowds and commerce are gone. Even the seagulls have moved on. What’s left is the eternal roar of the falls.
NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario — Thunder clapped. Bloodcurdling cries filled the air. And a menacing voice boomed down the Clifton Hill tourist strip, beckoning thrill seekers to “kill a little time” at the House of Frankenstein, where “body snatchers” and gargoyles lurk in the dark shadows.
But few were on hand in this city of a towering casino and kitschy funhouses to hear the message. Bored funnel-cake vendors waited for customers. Only a handful of people marveled at the main draw: the magnificent waterfalls, shrouded in a veil of mist, that straddle the U.S.-Canada border.
The unprecedented decision taken by Canadian and American officials in March to close that frontier to nonessential travel has upended life in ways subtle and obvious in border communities such as Niagara Falls, Ontario, where crossing to fill up on cheaper gas (on the U.S. side) or to visit loved ones is routine.
And it has left many in this city, where Americans make up one-quarter of its 12 million annual visitors and about half of its $1.8 billion in tourism revenue, with plenty of angst and plenty of time.
Al Reinhart, who has owned a souvenir shop for some three decades, spends his workdays “staring out into the sky” and reading a newspaper because there are so few customers. He sees “little hope” for anyone in the area until the lifting of the border measures, which are widely popular in much of Canada as cases surge in both countries.
Rob McLeod, a 52-year-old hotel caretaker, turned to family for help after work dried up. Hotel revenue in Niagara Falls, Ontario, was down more than 70 percent in the first nine months of the year, compared with the same period in 2019, according to hotel data from the tracking firm STR. Weekends busy with Canadian visitors weren’t enough to compensate for international losses.
It’s not just humans absent.
“We used to have flocks of seagulls,” McLeod noted, “but with so little for them to scavenge, I haven’t heard them.”
The border restrictions split Natasha Goutova from Emory Weber, her boyfriend who lives six miles away, across the border in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Their relationship now takes place mostly on FaceTime.
Jim Diodati, the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario, said the tourist-dependent city is resilient, having survived currency fluctuations, years of bad weather and even other pandemics.
The open border “is something that we’ve always taken for granted,” Diodati said. “Now that you can’t do that — sometimes you don’t appreciate things until you lose them.”
Lake Worth Beach
A community sees its traditions upended and its livelihood in peril
Death in Haiti is a community affair. A lost loved one is mourned sometimes for seven to 10 days. Family and friends from miles around attend the wake and the burial.
Many Haitian immigrants in the United States treat death and funerals the same way, as a sacred passage that requires the prayers, songs and chants of dozens, even hundreds, of people before burial.
“Our Haitian community is always together. What covid has done is isolate everyone,” said Justin Elien, a first-generation Haitian American in South Florida and an assistant funeral director. “Covid became almost like a ghost. People were scared.”
They were scared of death, and now they are afraid of how they’re going to live in a community where jobs — mostly low-wage jobs in restaurants and hotels — have evaporated.
“This virus has wreaked havoc on our community,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, a Miami-based organization that supports Haitian women and their families.
“Things were bad before the pandemic, but the pandemic has been a crisis multiplier,” she said. “Haitian immigrants were already vulnerable because of health disparities and also in employment. Many are not even making minimum wage. They were working two or three jobs just to put food on the table and educate their children. Now those jobs are gone.”
Lives are gone, too, she said, and the coronavirus has robbed Haitian society of the traditional community mourning that would help heal.
“This has been so tough, so beyond tough,” Bastien said.“This pandemic put a wrench in our long-held traditions, rendering people culturally empty. It left them distressed. They cannot hug and kiss and take care of each other.”
Pierre Dubreil and his fellow volunteers are doing what they can to take care of their community, but he said it’s a difficult and sad task. Dubreil, 47, who was born in Haiti, helps organize food giveaways in Lake Worth Beach, Fla.
“We help people who have lost their jobs. When we run out of food, it’s really sad. So many people don’t have enough food,” Dubreil said. “This is a disaster. It’s not only the sickness, it’s the problem of jobs. People cannot put food on the table. They cannot pay the rent.
“The community is weak, and it’s getting weaker. I don’t know if we can ever go back again.”
‘This is a moment of authentic mourning. We are like the leaves of trees, hanging on an unknown and uncertain destiny.’
TRENTO, Italy — Friar Ezio Tavernini returns each night to the walls of the Capuchin monastery in Trento on the southern sweep of the Italian Alps. He knows suffering well. For 10 years, he has been the chaplain at Santa Chiara Hospital, offering support for the sick and dying.
When the coronavirus roared into northern Italy in March, the monastery was not spared. Fra Ezio, using a title among the Capuchins and other orders, assisted two brothers in the monastery, Fra Bernardo and Fra Gianpietro, who died of the coronavirus. Bernardo was 90 years old. Gianpietro was 47, the youngest in the monastery.
There are eight brothers remaining. But the loss cannot be rendered just in numbers in places such as the 420-year-old Capuchin monastery.
It has eaten away the timeless continuity of monastic life — that bond between the immutable past and the sense of a predictable future. Religious communities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe were already under huge strains by a scarcity of young people joining the orders. And with few young monks or nuns, the elders must care for themselves — and ponder a time in decades to come when no one may be left.
“This is a moment of authentic mourning,” said Fra Ezio, his 51-year-old face covered by a mask, but the wrinkles around his eyes leave no doubt about his pain. “We are like the leaves of trees, hanging on an unknown and uncertain destiny.”
Fra Ezio has played the role of Charon, the boatman on the mythic River Styx, ferrying souls from one threshold to another. He is also there to listen to confidences of those still on our side. Like those of Fra Massimo Morandini, who questioned his vocation after the death of the two brothers in March.
He then left religious life.
“After Gianpietro’s death,” he wrote to Fra Ezio, “I was puzzled and shattered. I found myself on the ground like a beaten boxer. Getting up, I told myself that nothing would have been the same as before.”
In one horrific moment, a city lost its spirit, its soul and its sense of self
BEIRUT — Elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus was center stage in disrupting lives and ruining economies.
In Beirut, the pandemic has been just a part of a much bigger tragedy. The year will be remembered as a time when everything the city stood for — everything it believed itself to be — unraveled at breathtaking speed.
People have lost their savings in the collapse of a banking system once renowned as a haven across the Middle East. Their incomes were gutted by the fivefold depreciation of their currency.
Coronavirus lockdowns helped accelerate business closures and job losses. The once vast middle class has been propelled into poverty. Those who were already poor are at risk of going hungry.
But the virus was not the cause of a crisis rooted in decades of corruption, malfeasance and negligence. These were also behind the massive explosion that ripped through Beirut in August, after a fire ignited a pile of chemicals left carelessly unattended at the port.
More than 200 people lost their lives. Survivors lost homes, possessions, loved ones, limbs and eyes. Beirut lost its most vibrant neighborhoods, its cultural and entertainment heart.
It lost its spirit, its soul and its sense of self.
At the close of this calamitous year, the city is a faint shadow of the freewheeling, fun-loving metropolis it used to be.
The few bars and restaurants that remain open are crowded with people in the evenings — when coronavirus restrictions allow. They glow like islands: pinpricks of light marooned in a sea of dark, empty streets and wrecked, deserted buildings.
The international brand names that lent an air of cosmopolitanism have closed or will soon. H&M, Body Shop, the Four Seasons and Victoria’s Secret are among the companies shutting down.
People are leaving, too. If they can.
Government figures show a net outflow of around 120,000 people since the explosion. Half of them are foreigners, including many of the migrant workers who cleaned the homes of the Lebanese families who can no longer afford to pay them.
But most citizens can’t leave. Their money is irretrievably stuck in the bankrupt banks, and their passports aren’t welcome in a pandemic world more averse than ever to new arrivals.
They are trapped in a city they no longer recognize as home.
Paradise lost: With eviction looming, residents of an RV park wonder what comes next
After working all day building multimillion-dollar lodges for wealthy retirees and second-home owners, it was never that easy for construction worker Milton Powell to return home to his 32-foot trailer.
But for more than two decades, Powell managed to enjoy his piece of paradise at the Hoback RV Park in Wyoming’s Teton County, which is made up of ski towns and national parkland.
Powell paid about $650 per month to park his trailer on a lot that backs up to the Snake River, allowing him to sit in his backyard and watch deer, elk, eagles and a family of marmots splash around some of America’s most gorgeous scenery. Hummingbirds returned to his feeder each spring, and mountain lion paw prints sometimes dotted the bed of his truck.
With an affable and humble group of neighbors around, Powell knew he had friends with whom he could grab a beer or swap advice on how best to rough it through icy Wyoming winters.
A few weeks ago, however, Powell and two dozen tenants in the park received a cruel year-end surprise. They were being evicted in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, pushed out into a county with few options for affordable living.
“Sounds like we’ve all got to scatter out into the four winds,” said Powell, 64. “Some of us will probably have to leave the state.”
The saga facing the residents of the Hoback RV Park — which residents say is the last public community for recreational vehicles in Teton County — has become a major source of controversy in northwestern Wyoming amid a bitter battle between tenants and the property owner.
Powell, who has parked his trailer there since 1998, says the property owner, Crowley Capital, is shutting down the park in hopes of redeveloping it to take advantage of Teton County’s booming real estate market.
According to local real estate agents, property values continue to skyrocket in Teton County as the affluent flee both coasts, a trend that has only accelerated this year during the pandemic. David Viehman, a real estate agent who writes the Jackson Hole Report newsletter, said there has been $2.3 billion in real estate sales in Teton County so far this year, with another $600 million worth of properties under contract. The booming market shatters the previous record of $1.6 billion in sales in 2007.
The median price for single-family houses stands at just under $5 million, said Viehman, who works for the real estate firm Engel & Völkers.
“Supply continues to disappear,” the firm wrote in the Jackson Hole Report. “The overall numbers available are a record-breaking low.”
Representatives for Crowley Capital, which bought the RV park about 18 months ago, said the eviction notices have nothing to do with real estate values. Instead, Crowley Capital representatives said tenants are being forced to evacuate the trailer park because of a faulty septic tank that could endanger the health of the Snake River.
Teton County regulators and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality ordered Crowley Capital to repair the septic issues, even if it meant displacing the tenants, said Matthew Kim-Miller, an attorney for the owners.
Yet, the eviction orders have sparked considerable debate in Teton County.
In November, local newspaper Jackson Hole News & Guide noted that the eviction notices appeared timed to coincide with the end of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s moratorium on evictions due to the pandemic. The new federal stimulus package extended the eviction moratorium by one month, to Jan. 31. But researchers and advocates warn that as many as 40 million people could face eviction without the protections.
“I worry they are just using the septic system as an excuse to shut everything down,” Powell said.
In recent days, amid a backlash from tenants and the public, Crowley Capital reached an agreement with some of the tenants to allow them to stay, for a reduced rent, in the RV park through the spring. But starting in January, there will be no direct water and sewer hookup, which will force residents who stay to retain both in their RVs and campers until resupplied or emptied.
Powell initially struggled with his plans and considered moving back to his native Texas. But with the construction industry booming in Teton County, Powell decided to stay for the work — he’s currently working on a new 5,000-square-foot house that he estimates to be worth at least $14 million.
His boss is going to let him park his RV in his front yard, a potentially lifesaving respite even if his rent will increase to about $1,000 a month.
“I’ve watched this for 22 years,” Powell said. “I build houses for the rich, but I live in a 32-foot trailer.”
A dispiriting choice: Stay and fight for freedoms or flee for a new life in exile
HONG KONG — The changes that have swept through Hong Kong over the past year are as much physical as they are anything else.
Streets alive with the hopeful energy of protest have turned quiet, the hum of car engines replacing the chants to free Hong Kong from Beijing’s grip. Walls once decorated with hundreds of neon sticky-notes and posters, each bearing a message of resilience and resistance, are back to their dull gray and stained with bits of glue and pulp that won’t scrub off. Walkways that offered sweeping views of central Hong Kong — its skyline synonymous with its status as an Asian financial powerhouse — are barricaded with metal grates so they can’t be used as vantage points for protesters to pelt police officers stationed below.
And then there are those who have vanished from public life, no longer able to walk these streets, demonstrate in front of government officers, debate in the legislature or simply enjoy a cup of iced milk tea. Some have made this decision by choice and went into self-exile in Taiwan, Europe and elsewhere. Others were taken by force. Among them: activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai, all behind bars.
This year, with the world consumed by the pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party sought to bring Hong Kong to its knees, hoping to finally and decisively quash the spirit of activism and defiance that made this city distinct from the Chinese mainland. After passing a new security law by fiat, Beijing has moved to fundamentally restructure the city’s institutions, from schools to the legislature.
For the millions of dissenters, the path ahead is fraught. More than 10,000 have been arrested. Those still brave enough to resist, even by simply shouting slogans or carrying flags, have faced penalties under coronavirus restrictions, weaponized against them. The fear is palpable. Academics, civil servants and the families of jailed Hong Kong residents are all too afraid to speak to the media, fearing repercussions.
The choice now is the struggle of remaining, fighting to salvage what’s left, or the pain of leaving home as a political refugee. Eddie Chu, a former lawmaker slapped with at least five charges this year, struggles to envision what comes next for his city.
“Whether we can overcome this and come up with something new,” he said, “is something that I am totally unsure of.”