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The top 25 Long Island stories of 2020

2020 will always be remembered as the year

2020 will always be remembered as the year of the coronavirus pandemic. Take a look at some of the other big stories that broke this year. Credit: Newsday staff; Photo Credit: Justyna Zubko-Valva

This year saw a deadly pandemic that killed thousands on Long Island alone and more than a million worldwide, protests amid a reckoning of race and policing and a tropical storm that ravaged the Island. Revisit some of the stories that defined Long Island in 2020, in approximate chronological order.

Bail law reform debate

At the heart of the criminal justice discussion among state lawmakers was a law that went into effect on Jan. 1 eliminating cash bail for defendants facing misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Advocates said it would prevent people from being held in jail just because they can't afford to pay for bail. They added that the law "created an urgency" to help those released, such as in Hempstead Village, where a task force provides a range of services, including enrolling participants in job training, mentoring them and connecting them with potential employers.

But several Long Island officials said the law needs to change to grant judges the discretion to assign bail for a defendant, especially if the person is likely to commit more crimes.

Later in the year, law enforcement unions called for the repeal of state bail reform laws, citing the case of a Bellport man with a lengthy criminal record who killed himself after a brief pursuit, leaving police to then find the bodies of two relatives in his home. Questions remain, however, about how the new bail laws impacted the case and why the man was not returned to prison after repeated arrests, parole violations and missed court appearances.

Regeneron scholars, top LI high schools named

In January, 36 high school seniors from 20 LI high schools were named scholars in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, with projects ranging from how to protect salt marshes, preventing West Coast forest fires and the presence of tick-borne diseases in Fire Island Deer Ticks.

Four of those students were named finalists in the competition, with the students coming from three Nassau County high schools: Andrew Britton and Katherine St George from John F. Kennedy High School, along with Kyra McCreery from North Shore High School and Ella Wesson of Manhasset High School.

In July, St George placed in the Top 10 in the competition, placing sixth and earning an $80,000 prize for her study on the impact of diet and caffeine on fruit flies. The other three finalists from LI won $25,000 each.

Nineteen LI high schools were named among the nation's best, placing in the top 1,000 nationwide by a U.S. News & World Report ranking that came out in April.

Districts with highly ranked schools in Nassau County are Jericho, Manhasset, Garden City, Great Neck, Syosset, North Shore, East Williston, Roslyn, Herricks, Plainview-Old Bethpage, Port Washington and Bellmore-Merrick. Great Neck had two schools listed.

In Suffolk County, districts with high-performing schools are Cold Spring Harbor, Harborfields, Elwood, Hauppauge and Half Hollow Hills. Half Hollow Hills also had two schools posted.

Developments in case of Gilgo murders

Suffolk police in January released an image of a black leather belt believed to have been handled by a potential suspect in the Gilgo Beach killings, marking a new chapter in the decadeslong investigation into 10 sets of human remains found along Ocean Parkway.

In May, police revealed the identity of one of the victims. "Jane Doe No. 6," as she had been known, is Valerie Mack, police said. She was positively identified through genetic genealogy, a new DNA technology.

December marked 10 years since the first remains were found at Gilgo Beach. Despite the developments, no arrests have been made.

Thomas Valva dies

Eight-year-old Thomas Valva, of Center Moriches, died Jan. 17 of hypothermia after being forced to sleep on the bare concrete floor of his home's unheated garage, when temperatures dipped to 19 degrees outside, authorities said.

Thomas’ father Michael Valva — an NYPD officer — and his fiancee, Angela Pollina, were indicted on charges of second-degree murder and endangering the welfare of a child, according to court records.

Thomas Valva’s death prompted several probes and generated widespread community outrage. Newsday reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including court transcripts in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, Child Protective Services reports from several caseworkers, and assessments from court-appointed lawyers and the East Moriches school district. The documents show systems intended to protect children ultimately ignored multiple warnings, including those from Thomas’ mother Justyna Zubko-Valva, who painstakingly documented the alleged abuse of her sons.

In June, Zubko-Valva filed a $200 million lawsuit alleging ignored years of warnings of sexual abuse, beatings, starvation and neglect.

More coverage: Remembering the life of Thomas Valva; A timeline of the Thomas Valva case

President Trump acquitted in impeachment trial

After he was impeached by the House in December 2019, President Donald Trump in February was acquitted in the U.S. Senate in a swift vote almost exclusively along party lines.

The third presidential impeachment trial in American history saw months of remarkable proceedings, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's House to Mitch McConnell's Senate, reflecting the nation's unrelenting partisan divide in the Trump presidency.

What started as Trump's request for Ukraine to "do us a favor" spun into a far-reaching, 28,000-page report compiled by House investigators accusing an American president of engaging in shadow diplomacy that threatened U.S. foreign relations for personal, political gain as he pressured the ally to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead of the next election.

More coverage: Senators explain their votes on impeachment

State Senate subpoenas real estate agents in discrimination probe

The State Senate in February began issuing 25 subpoenas to real estate agents and companies to probe allegations of housing discrimination brought to light in Newsday's "Long Island Divided" series, officials said.

Newsday's three-year investigation found evidence of widespread separate and unequal treatment of minority homebuyers and minority communities on Long Island.

At a hearing in September, lawmakers expressed outrage about an apparent lack of disciplinary actions against real estate agents and suggested brokers might need limits on the number of agents they supervise.

Grumman plume

Grumman, the Bethpage aerospace giant, knew as far back as the mid-1970s that its toxic chemicals were contaminating area groundwater, but it kept secret crucial information that could have helped stop what is now Long Island’s most intractable environmental crisis, a Newsday investigation published in February found.

On numerous occasions, particularly during a critical 15-year period, the company made public statements that directly contradicted the alarming evidence it held, as it avoided culpability and millions in costs.

This behavior was long enabled by government officials who downplayed the pollution and did little to contain its spread from Grumman’s once-600-acre site, through Bethpage and into neighboring communities.

The nine-month Newsday investigation, built on thousands of pages of records and scores of interviews, charts a largely hidden history, one that emerges, most strikingly, in confidential Grumman and government documents revealed for the first time.

More coverage: Watch the documentary

New York's on-again, off-again plastic bag ban

Long Island shoppers dealt with a ban on plastic bags under New York State law, although it wasn't a smooth rollout of the enforcement due to lawsuits and the pandemic.

The law, which was supposed to start March 1, was delayed initially for a month as a state judge ordered the enforcement to be delayed to April 1.

The lawsuit wasn't decided until August, when a state judge ruled in favor of the ban. With the legal blessing, the enforcement of plastic bags finally began in October.

Driver found guilty in death of Evelyn Rodriguez

Ann Marie Drago in March was found guilty in the death of anti-gang activist Evelyn Rodriguez.

The two had a heated confrontation in 2018 about a Brentwood memorial for Rodriguez’s daughter Kayla Cuevas, who prosecutors say fell victim to a deadly MS-13 gang attack. Two years to the day when her daughter’s body was found, Rodriguez suffered fatal injuries when Drago drove her vehicle forward, running over the grieving mother with both driver’s side tires.

Drago is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 14.

COVID-19 arrives on LI, causing shutdowns

Coronavirus offically arrived on Long Island on March 6, with a Nassau County man being the first to contract the virus in the two counties. However, Stony Brook doctors reported their first suspected case of the virus may have been on Long Island back in February, with community spread before the confirmed cases a month later.

As the virus spread quickly, just two weeks after its arrival on LI, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced all non-essential services would be shut down in New York State on March 22. Only essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and others were allowed to remain open, and restaurants could only offer take out or delivery.

The virus hit Long Island particularly hard, with the death toll reaching 1,000 on April 10, and 1,000 deaths at nursing homes on the Island by early May.

In-store retail, offices, hair salons and vehicle sales were all closed until June, with malls, gyms and movie theaters remaining closed. Roosevelt Field, LI's largest mall, finally reopened in July, with others soon to follow. Gyms followed a month later, while movie theaters on Long Island didn't open until October.

Amid the pandemic, Long Islanders give back

A local halal group purchased 5,000 pounds of rice for communities in need. Latina mothers showed up at a Wyandanch COVID-19 testing site to help those who needed Spanish translations of important medical information. Educators teamed up to donate technology to children in Brentwood and Central Islip for remote learning.

In ways large and small during the COVID-19 pandemic, Long Islanders looked out for each other, and Newsday was there to capture it. In Newsday's series LI Acts of Kindness, we have recognized the selfless deeds in our communities during a frightening and troubled time.

We told weekly tales of encouragement and innovation, from a soccer coach who played one-on-one with an 11-year-old player with hemophilia while wearing masks, to a teen who made face shields for frontline workers using his own 3D printer. Many of the Long Islanders we profiled grew up in the communities they were serving, making their stories even more personal.

Islanders' new arena at Belmont nears completion, gets name

The National Hockey League season was interrupted by the spread in March, with the Islanders having to relocate their playoff games to Toronto as the team reached the Conference Final for the first time since 1993 in August. While the team split games between Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center in the 2019-20 season, the team is expected to play in Uniondale for the truncated 2020-21 season and move to Belmont for the 2021-22 season in fall.

Construction on the Islanders' $1 billion new arena at Belmont continued towards a scheduled late 2021 completion, after being paused two months due to the coronavirus pandemic. It also got a name: UBS Arena.

The new arena became much more recognizeable as the year went on, getting a brick facade and getting topped off with a roof by the end of the year. The building will be part of a complex on a 43-acre site on state land adjacent to the racetrack, which also will include a hotel and retail space.

More coverage: See photos of the UBS Arena construction

Roslyn school scandal depicted in HBO movie

"Bad Education," which tells the story of the Roslyn School District embezzlement scandal that took place in the early 2000s, aired on HBO in April.

Hugh Jackman starred as former district superintendent Frank Tassone, who helped turn the Roslyn school district into a national powerhouse but then served more than three years in prison for his part in an $11 million embezzlement scheme.

It received an Emmy nomination for best television movie and Jackman was nominated for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie.

Tassone said that "40 to 50 percent" of the film is true, and complimented Jackman's portrayal of him.

More coverage: 'Bad Education' review; 'Bad Education' writer, a Roslyn HS grad, talks about the true-crime film

Despite pandemic, Third Track project on track

While it wasn't a good year for the MTA and LIRR with ridership down due to the pandemic, one part that remained running was the $2.6 billion Third Track project, which stayed on schedule and budget, despite other projects getting paused due to the virus.

The project will add another track to alleviate congestion in a 10-mile stretch from Floral Park to Hicksville. It is expected to be completed in 2022.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, as the MTA tried to find a way to keep the 500 employees working on the project safe, and other items were distrupted by supply issues due to the pandemic.

One of the more visible products of the construction during the pandemic was a new bridge in Carle Place, along with an underpass in New Hyde Park, which both were unveiled over the summer.

Coronavirus alters Long Island's summer rituals

Summer wasn't the same in 2020 with coronavirus, as beaches were closed and other annual traditions canceled due to the pandemic.

Beaches on Long Island were closed until May 22, and even when they reopened, social distancing was enforced with other measures to limit the normally crowded Memorial Day weekend.

One of Memorial Day's favorite events, the Bethpage Air Show, was canceled in April, although there was a flyover by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds late that month to honor essential workers.

Jones Beach also didn't hold its annual July 4 fireworks this year, among several shows that weren't held across the island. New York's annual display was turned into a made-for-TV event, with displays being filmed in the days up to Independence Day across the boroughs and meant to limit live viewing.

The cancellations didn't stop some amateur pyrotechicians from trying to put on shows of their own, as fireworks complaints spiked across parts of LI, and people found a different way to celebrate America's birthday in 2020.

As the summer unlike any other drew to a close, Long Islanders donned their masks and went to the beaches one last time on Labor Day and prepared for a very uncertain fall and winter.

George Floyd's death protested across LI

On May 25, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis while handcuffed when a police officer put his knee on his neck while he was on the ground, causing him to lose conciousness and die. The death was captured on video, sparking massive protests across the country, and Long Island.

Protests were mostly peaceful on Long Island. Protesters caused the closure of the Southern State Parkway and Sunrise Highway on June 4, with appoximately 4,000 gathered in Merrick. The next day, 1,000 gathered in Hempstead to protest police brutality, and thousands across Long Island protested that week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on June 13 said local governments will lose most state funding if they don't redesign their police forces by April 2021, as police nationwide were put under more scruitiny for their actions in dealing with minorities.

Lidl, Amazon acquire locations on LI

German discount grocer Lidl opened several locations in 2020, converting former Best Market locations in East Meadow, Patchogue, East Nortport, Lake Grove and Oakdale starting in July. Lidl, which opened four locations on LI in December 2019, had bought all but one location of the former Bethpage-based company that year, with intentions of converting them, and has plans to open up to 50 locations on Long Island.

The grocer, which mostly offers its own private label groceries in stores that are smaller than traditional supermarkets, can offer a unique way to shop, according to Newsday's food critic.

Another former grocery store became part of Amazon's plan to expand its distribution network, as the company announced plans to convert a long-closed Waldbaum's in Carle Place into a distribution center. The "last-mile" warehouse, one of 150 the company has nationwide to be a "logistics delivery station," will be one of four on Long Island, which includes an existing one in Bethpage, one in Shirley that opened in October and another one in Holbrook.

More coverage: See what jobs Amazon is hiring for on LI

Isaias blows through LI, toppling trees, knocking out power

Tropical Storm Isaias passed through Long Island on Aug. 4, bringing 35 to 45 mph sustained winds, along with 78 mph wind gusts that toppled hundreds of trees, which fell onto cars, houses and power lines and disrupted LIRR service. The storm didn't bring a lot of rain to the Island, but the brief burst of strong winds caused damage to the power grid.

Initially, PSEG LI said a peak of 420,000 residents were without electricity in the wake of the storm, but it became a long process for the utility to restore electricity to all those customers.

Frustrated customers couldn't get an estimation on when power would be restored, a process that took days for thousands as the summer heat caused Long Islanders to look for other ways to cool off without air conditioning as the company's response went under the microscope.

It took up to eight days for all PSEG LI customers to get their power restored. While a company executive issued a promise to not repeat the problems, LIPA issued a scathing report and the company's JD Power customer satisfaction score dropped sharply.

LIPA in December filed a $70 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against grid operator PSEG in an unprecedented move that puts a price tag on the company’s "grossly negligent" performance during the storm.

Wrong-way crash kills 4, injures 2 on Southern State

A wrong-way crash early on the morning of Sept. 14 killed four and injured two people on the Southern State Parkway in North Massapequa, as it sparked a chain-reaction collision between Exits 29 and 30 on the roadway.

The driver of the wrong-way vehicle, Marvin Balcaseres, 33, was killed. Also killed were Ruben Sanchez-Flores, 67, who was driving his Nissan Rogue eastbound with his daughter, Ivis Sanchez-Cordova, 34, on their way to work, along with family friend Edith Magana, 56.

Another passenger in the Rogue, Nadia Sanchez-Cordova, 44, who lost her father and sister in the crash, was in intensive care for over a month, with her family saying it was a "miracle" she survived. Roberto Mac, 32, of Conyers, Ga., who was driving a motorcycle that struck debris and lost control, was taken to the hospital with non-life threatning injuries.

The accident took place in a 10-mile stretch of the roadway known as "Blood Alley," where numerous fatal accidents have taken place over the years, and what Newsday in 2012 called the deadliest parkways in Nassau County.

Family and friends gathered four days after the accident for a vigil to mourn those lost in the crash, and a GoFundMe campaign raised over $20,000 for funeral expenses.

Thomas Murphy sentenced

Thomas Murphy, convicted of driving drunk into a group of Boy Scouts and killing Andrew McMorris, was sentenced in September to 8 ⅓ to 25 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Murphy spent hours before the crash drinking vodka at the Swan Lake Golf Club in Manorville with three friends. Roughly a mile from the golf course, Murphy crossed a white fog line and crashed into the Scouts, who were on a 20-mile hike, prosecutors said.

"This needless, selfish, reckless act caused the death of a beautiful 12-year-old boy," said Acting State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho. "This selfish, reckless act caused so much suffering and so much pain."

The sentence was handed down after Camacho rejected efforts by Murphy's defense team for a new trial after dismissing allegations of juror misconduct during the trial.

More coverage: McMorris family honors 'little renaissance man'

Diocese of Rockville Centre files for bankruptcy

On Oct. 1, the Diocese for Rockville Centre filed for bankruptcy, because of to financial pressures due to payments to childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse.

The eighth-largest diocese in the nation also blamed a decrease in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic in its decision to file for bankruptcy. It's believed to be the largest diocese to file for Chapter 11 protection.

While LI Catholics reacted with disappointment to the move, they were hopeful the church would be able to continue its good work and also compensate the victims.

Suffolk Police stopped minority drivers at higher rate, analysis shows

A Newsday analysis of police data showed that the Suffolk County Police subjected Hispanic and Black drivers to tougher enforcement actions than white drivers over the past two years.

The analysis found Black drivers were pulled over four times as often as white drivers, and Hispanic drivers twice as often as whites. Black drivers were searched three times as often as whites, and Hispanics 1.7 times as often as whites.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called the findings "unacceptable," while Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart added it was "very concerning for this department."

2020 election

Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump to become the 46th president of the United States in November. The Democratic victory also made Sen. Kamala Harris the first woman, and first woman of color, to hold the nation’s second-highest office.

Trump refused to concede, insisting that there had been massive voter fraud and that he had won the election, claims that were shown to be false.

In Long Island’s congressional races, Republican Andrew Garbarino defeated Democrat Jackie Gordon in the 2nd District race to replace outgoing Rep. Peter King, while incumbents Lee Zeldin, Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice all won reelection.

More coverage: Election results; Map: How Long Island voted

Steve Cohen buys the Mets

Multibillionaire Long Island native Steve Cohen became the Mets’ majority owner in November, closing on a $2.475 billion transaction with the Wilpon and Katz families.

Cohen, a hedge fund manager who grew up in Great Neck, had been a minority owner of the team since 2012. It took him at least 338 days to buy the Mets, but only two hours to make massive changes — it was announced that general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and most of his inner circle were leaving the organization.

More coverage: Steve Cohen’s rise from Great Neck, to Wall Street, to Mets owner

A surge of coronavirus cases on LI

As the colder temperatures returned to Long Island, so did a spike in coronavirus cases on Long Island. The virus caused changes in some people's holiday plans, as authorities urged people to stay home and not travel to see their relatives and friends, even if they got a negative coronavirus test before traveling. Black Friday shopping wasn't the same for Long Island retailers as the normal hours were reduced, and gathering restrictions were in place.

By mid-December, the infection rate on Long Island had eclipsed 5%, as hospitalizations and deaths rose in the weeks before the holidays.

The news wasn't all bleak, as Sandra Lindsay, a critcal care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, received the first COVID-19 vaccine shot in New York State on Dec. 14, the first of thousands of health care workers and nursing home staff and residents to get the vaccination.

Christmas mass was alttered by the virus, with online, spaced seating or even parking lot services held for the holiday. That doesn't mean the presents some LIers ordered arrived in time to be under the tree, however, as despite warnings to mail packages early due to the high volume, some gifts remained in limbo at the post office thanks to a surge in online ordering, staffing shortages and weather delays.

While the promise of a new vaccine's rollout in 2021 means light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 fight, with an LIU poll saying 7 of 10 Americans plan to get the shot, the rest of the winter still carries the threat of the diseas until the vaccinations are much more widespread.

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