What a year, folks.
The longer I work in this career, the worse I think my memory gets. I say that because as a general assignment reporter, you’re essentially cramming every day. In a nutshell, you’re studying for a pseudo-test that is due at 5 p.m., 6 p.m. or both, and you’ve got to get every single detail right. Then after you’re done with your report, you wipe the mental slate clean and prepare for the next day, ready to tackle another story that you may know a lot about or hardly anything.
But 2020 is unforgettable.
It’s been a year that’s reminded us all what really matters. It’s also been a year that reinforces why I got into this career in the first place. It’s a privilege to get to watch history unfold every single day — no matter how haunting and tragic those moments may be.
So much happened this year — a pandemic, an ensuing recession, the George Floyd protests that sparked a national reckoning on race, the worst wildfires in California history, Election week 2020 and now, a historic vaccine rollout.
Here are some of those unforgettable 2020 stories.
We had been waiting for the Grand Princess Cruise ship to pull into the Port of Oakland for days. It had been circling off the California coast waiting for the green light from someone in charge to dock and disembark. For the first time, COVID-19 wasn’t just a contagious virus that was ravaging Wuhan, China. It was coming to our shores in the form of a massive cruise ship with a cluster of cases onboard.
When KNTV photographer extraordinaire (or as I like to call him, my work uncle) Rich Goudeau and I pulled up to the media staging area, dozens of national and international news crews were already there. All eyes pointed west, towards the bay where the bow would appear any minute now.
When it finally did, I couldn’t help but point and yell, “there it is!”
We could see figures waving at us from cabin balconies.
Using FaceTime, we interviewed exhausted passengers on board who were relieved to know they would soon touch terra firma after days of being confined to their rooms. They complained about the cruise line and how the federal government failed to handle this properly. But they did reserve plenty of appreciation for the city of Oakland for taking them in. “Thank you, Oakland,” said one passenger.
"This is a logistical behemoth," I thought to my myself, after realizing how hard it would be to disembark and quarantine more than 2,000 American passengers. There was also the matter of the international guests from more than 20 different countries. Then I thought about the crew members, typically international. "Who’s going to deal with them?"
Sometime that afternoon, I noticed an Asian American reporter who appeared to work for an Asian TV station in the Bay Area. She was wearing a surgical face mask.
It struck me as odd.
"Is that necessary? The cruise ship is so far away. Wearing a mask seems excessive."
Boy, was I wrong.
By late March, the virus was here, and the Bay Area was under lockdown. You could hear our anchors say the phrase “our new normal” almost daily in our newscasts.
COVID-19 drastically changed how Rich and I did our jobs. For starters, we were wearing face masks. We were driving separately so we could be more socially distant. Instead of holding a handheld mic with the NBC Bay Area mic flag, I was carrying an elongated boom mic to interview people. I looked like a sound guy on a movie set. Our station supplied us with a precious commodity: Lysol wipes to sanitize our gear daily. We quickly became Zoom and StreamYard experts, opting to interview someone virtually rather than in-person. On one occasion, we interviewed a pharmacist from his pharmacy window, using the camera to capture his face and a microphone pressed to my cell phone to capture his audio. We continue these safety practices to this day.
On this day, we learned that an ER doctor at Highland Hospital, the East Bay’s only adult level one trauma center, was sounding the alarm that her hospital was running out of personal protective equipment. The doctor’s sister created a GoFundMe page, garnering more than $25,000 in donations.
It was there that I met Hannah Colbert, an ER nurse at Highland Hospital. It didn’t take a lot of coaxing for her to talk to us on camera. I could see the anxiety and exhaustion in her eyes.
“We’re just not prepared,” she told me. “A lot of us can’t sleep because we want to be able to come do our job and go home and not spread the virus to our own families.”
Before moving to the Bay Area, I lived in Minneapolis for four years — or better yet, four long winters. I was the morning reporter for the NBC station in the Twin Cities. How did I survive sub-zero morning live shots at 5 a.m.? Ski pants and hot coffee.
I ended up loving Minneapolis, especially its people. Every now and then, I catch myself still elongating my "o’s" and saying “uff da.”
So, when the 8-minute and 46-second video of George Floyd dying at the hands of Minneapolis Police went viral, I was glued to my phone. Then I was glued to my TV and the 24/7 news coverage of the unrest in Minneapolis. A wave of anger, frustration and defiance swept the country, engulfing the Bay Area with it. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Oakland to demand justice for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality. Their message: the time for our nation’s long overdue racial reckoning is now.
It was a time for all of us to take a deep look at ourselves, recognize our own implicit biases and have that important conversation about race, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
One image is etched in my brain from the summer of 2020.
It’s the image of Brianna Noble, a Black equestrian, leading a group of peaceful demonstrators through downtown Oakland on horseback.
A homemade sign that reads “Black Lives Matter” is swung over her horse, Dapper Dan.
I would later interview Noble, who told me, “where I feel powerful is on top of my horse’s back.”
The protests also changed how downtown Oakland, downtown San Francisco and downtown San Jose look to this day.
After one particularly chaotic night of unrest in Oakland where I could hear police sirens at all hours of the night, I biked down Broadway Avenue the next morning to see the damage for myself. It was extensive. Businesses like Target and several car dealerships were looted. Business owners scrambled to board up their windows.
In true Oakland fashion, I saw the community come out to support their neighbors. Instead of pointing fingers at who was to blame for the damage, I saw neighbors bring their own brooms, jugs of bleach and trash bags to collectively clean up their city. Then came the artists who used every blank boarded-up window as a canvas. The protest-inspired artwork is still there to this day.
Sept. 9 — Orange Skies Day
“Did I get up early? What time is it?”
Those were my thoughts when I woke up on that strange September morning.
My bedroom was eerily dark. The birds that normally chirp all morning long outside of my window were silent.
The skies were a strange orange hue. I walked outside to take my dog out and I noticed my car had a thick layer of ash.
It didn’t take a meteorology degree to know what caused this — wildfires.
2020 was California’s worst fire season.
I posted this on my Instagram page that day:
“Lately, living in the #BayArea is like living in a snow globe of ash, smoke and anxiety. Today, we woke up to an eerie orange sky and a layer of ash that blanketed everything outside. The reason for this.....there’s so many #wildfires happening now in #California and Oregon that are ripping through thousands of acres by the hour.”
During the lockdown, I had grown to love hiking and trail running. It was my escape. The eerie skies and the days of smoke-filled air that followed felt like salt on the wound. Still, we had a job to do.
The next month, Rich and I would go to wine country to report on the Glass Fire, which caused unprecedented destruction to wineries and neighborhoods in the Napa Valley.
The once beautiful and romantic Silverado Trail looked like a road to hell.
I described driving down the Silverado Trail on air like “watching a bad game of tennis.” We were constantly looking left and right to see what was saved, what was partially damaged and what was destroyed.
It was in Calistoga where we stumbled upon the owners of Phifer Pavitt Wine, Shane Pavitt and Suzanne Phifer, who were gracious enough to talk to us and show us the extent of the fire damage.
Sept. 29 — Glass Fire Coverage
The Glass Fire damaged their vineyard and even scorched parts of the couple’s home. But their treasured winery was still standing, thanks to firefighters who worked tirelessly to save it.
“This is the life-blood and the life source of making wine,” said Suzanne. “It’s still standing. It’s still here. Everything raged outside. We’re incredibly, incredibly fortunate.”
As draining as wildfire coverage can be (during a pandemic no less), I always come away with an appreciation and respect for the firefighters who put everything on the line and the survivors who show you what resilience truly is.
Nov. 7 — Election 2020 Results
“Melissa, wake up!”
It was Saturday morning and my boyfriend was tugging at my arm.
“I think Joe Biden won. The neighbors are shouting.”
I sprinted to the TV in the living room.
After days of watching the inimitable Steve Kornacki on MSNBC break down ballot numbers from key states like Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, the wait was over. Joe Biden would become the country’s 46th president. Oakland’s own Kamala Harris would become the country’s first woman (and the first Black and Asian American) vice president.
“Well, I know where people are going to go,” I said.
We took the dog and we walked to Oakland’s Lake Merritt.
It was a sun-drenched fall day.
As we got to Grand Avenue, you could immediately feel the music pulsating and hear people cheering.
A DJ had set up his sound equipment near a parklet. When the traffic lights turned red, a crowd of dancers would run out to the street and dance until the lights turned green. A little boy dressed as a mailbox, an ode to mail-in ballots, danced while others snapped photos.
Drivers honked. People waved from their sunroofs. Others banged on pots and pans. Champagne bottles were passed around. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf take a victory lap around Lake Merritt in a fire-breathing snail car.
Under so many face masks, you could make out smiles.
I met up with Rich at John Muir Health Medical Center in Concord that Wednesday morning. We were in a room with other local media and there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. We all knew we would be in the presence of something important — vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
We were there to watch as dozens of frontline health care workers received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. We saw nurses take selfies. We saw doctors roll up their sleeves and record the needle going into their skin, documenting the moment to later show to their families and friends. We would see this same process play out for other frontline workers, like paramedics and firefighters later that week.
For my final story of 2020, I went to a retirement community in Walnut Creek, where I saw the first seniors in Northern California receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
I couldn’t help but think to myself – "look how far we’ve come."
COVID-19 will still be with us in the new year and our job will still have its fair share of challenges in 2021.
2021 won’t be perfect. It will still have its dark moments. But for the first time in a long time, I’m seeing more hope than disillusion and more optimism than dread.
I won’t forget the resiliency of the people who I interviewed this year and the co-workers who were by my side as we tried to navigate this strange new normal.
If 2020 is the year that we all somehow survived, I’m hoping 2021 will be the year that we all thrive.