Editor’s note: This is part of a week-long installment recapping the year of 2020. Today, we will look at happenings in January, February and March.
The drone mystery
It was 10 p.m., on Jan. 6, when YNT staffer Eric Eckert went out to observe the skies after receiving many calls from individuals in the area regarding patterns of mysterious drones flying over the area. There had been reports in western Nebraska the week before, of the same, and it looked like the drones – whoever they belonged to – had finally arrived here.
Eckert is the digital director for the YNT – and somewhat of an expert in drones, videography and photography.
Eckert, who lives in the Arbor Court/Arbor Drive area, said he went outside and when looking to the north saw one drone that he estimates was likely over the area of the fairgrounds.
“I got a longer zoom lens and took the video,” Eckert explained. “At that point, I headed to the area of the softball complex to avoid light pollution. When I was there, a friend called to say there were a bunch over Division Avenue. I headed in that direction but they were gone. I proceeded north of York about two miles and saw two more. Later, I saw two headed west of York and I followed until they turned around and went back east over York which is when I lost them. Over the course of it all, I saw at least four – two were flying together and two were flying by themselves.”
The York County Sheriff’s Department and the York Police Department received numerous calls about drones that night as well. The police department received reports at 7 p.m., over Duke Drive; at 8:09 p.m., over Quail Cove Road; at 9:12 p.m., over East Eighth Street; and at 10:08 p.m., over East David Drive. These calls were documented in the county’s communication report for the day.
Three sightings had earlier been reported to the York County Sheriff’s Department, including the Saturday before in the Benedict area, according to York County Sheriff’s Lt. Josh Gillespie. Calls about suspicious activity regarding the drones were also received that Monday, from the Benedict, York and Bradshaw areas – starting at 7:46 p.m. and lasting through 8:16 p.m.
That following Tuesday night, there were reports to the YNT of drone sightings over Lockridge Acres west of York, Bradshaw, Benedict, Stromsburg and Waco. At 7:30 p.m., York residents could see the movement of approximately seven drones moving in east/west/east/west patterns over the heart of the town.
The sightings had primarily been reported in southwest Nebraska but the reports here indicated they were moving more in in the eastern direction.
Drones, flying singularly or in formations of six to 12, were spotted in a variety of places. The drones being reported are larger than what typical hobbyists utilize and ag producers would not be using theirs at that time of year (or at nighttime, in the dark), investigators have said.
There has been a lot of speculation about who is behind the drones – so far, no one has claimed responsibility and no one has been found to be in operation of them.
Also at that time, Grand Island police officers spotted the drones flying in town. And the Hastings 911 Emergency Call Center received a call from Minneapolis Aircraft Control saying a pilot spotted five to six drones flying two miles west of Hastings.
Most reports, according to law enforcement, are that these are large, commercial-style drones that would require a license to operate.
The actual size of the aircrafts was unknown.
Lt. Gillespie said their department – along with other law enforcement agencies -- did not know who the drones belong to, why they are being flown where they are or what the intent may be.
“There are a lot of speculations out there,” Lt. Gillespie said. “Right now, just no one knows.”
No one has ever claimed responsibility for them.
Courthouse renovation pretty much finished
On Jan. 14, the York County Commissioners held their first meeting in the new commissioners’ chambers in the courthouse. The new space was part of the renovations that have been ongoing at the courthouse for the past year.
Also part of this ongoing project was the construction of a the new communications center which was up and running – with an open house planned for later in the spring.
The project began more than a year ago, after an interlocal agreement was signed between the city and the county to combine their 911 emergency dispatch services.
The project, which cost about $2 million to construct, included a large two-story addition, renovations and the extensive installation of technological infrastructure.
The county commissioners’ meeting room is now located in what used to be the sheriff’s squad room (the place where the deputies have their work stations/meeting/common area). The entrance to the commissioners’ chambers is located just north of the county clerk’s office.
The sheriff’s squad room is now located in the area where the emergency dispatch area once was.
The sheriff and sheriff lieutenant offices are located on the north side of the sheriff’s department.
Moving into the north addition, there is a main lobby area (facing east) for those visiting the sheriff’s department. The lobby is secured – but they can talk with staff behind a bullet proof window and eventually it will be an after-hours lobby with telephone communications that will go directly to the call center in the event of an emergency.
The entrance leading to the corrections window (at the jail) is still through the same entrance as it was before, on the east side of the building (facing north).
Inside the new addition there is a break room for staff, because they cannot leave during their shifts. There is also a space for them to sleep in case they have to stay after and/or between their shifts due to bad weather or emergency situations.
Moving into the communications hub itself – there are four stations. Each station has six monitors.
The technological advancements are evident – which was much needed. The sheriff’s previous equipment and systems were 20-plus years old and the city’s was even older.
Quiet zone is complete
A resolution declaring a quiet zone in York at the four at-grade crossings as signed by the York City Council which made it official (on the city’s end) that all modifications had been made in order to demand no more train horns.
The resolution was presented to the council, which said: “It is hereby resolved that the City of York shall issue a Notice of Quiet Zone Establishment to authorize the city officials to provide formal notice that a quiet zone is being established for the following public at-grade crossings: 25th Street, Delaware Avenue, 19th Street and North Division Avenue.”
“This has been a long time coming,” York City Administrator Joe Frei told the city council. “All the work on the city’s end has been completed.”
“This discussion began in 2007, so it’s been a long road,” Mayor Barry Redfern said, noting the talks started that year with the first action in the next year.
Second phase of downtown revitalization project begins
It was early January when the York City Council signed off on an administrative agreement with SENDD that started the second phase of the city’s downtown revitalization project.
As explained by Madonna Mogul, executive director of the York Chamber of Commerce, a total of $445,000 would be awarded for projects.
This grant provided for a large fund from which smaller grants were to be awarded to local businesses and property owners to utilize in efforts to revitalize their downtown buildings and store fronts.
In the first phase, the city was awarded funds and able to provide $307,000 toward 10 downtown projects. The total cost of the façade improvement projects in the first phase was $443,007 – which $136,007 being privately invested funds. The first phase of these construction projects began in May of 2018 and was completed in September, 2019.
York College sets enrollment record
With a Spring 2020 enrollment of 518 students, York College experienced its largest number of students in college history, eclipsing its previous mark of 510 students, according to college officials.
Eryn Conyers from the college’s public relations office said the increase was possible mainly through tremendous growth in the college’s online Master’s programs. The number of enrolled students grew almost 9 percent from the fall to spring semester with a 42 percent increase in online enrollment.
“In a time when most colleges are experiencing declines in enrollment, York College has been able to overcome this trend,” Conyers said. “Overall enrollment in colleges and universities is forecast to decline over the next several years and schools have been seeking strategies to increase enrollments. York College has developed several strategic alliances that have led to significant increases in online enrollment which are now impacting on-campus enrollment as well. Previously reported, Fall 2019 enrollment reflected an 8 percent increase in on-campus students and a 100 percent increase in online enrollment.”
First live video conferencing hearing held in York County District Court
The very first live video conferencing hearing was held in York County District Court on Monday morning, Feb. 24.
While there had been conversations about having this ability – in which the defendant is incarcerated elsewhere and is not physically present in the courtroom – but it wasn’t until that morning that it actually happened.
The November before, the York County Commissioners voted unanimously to sign off on a quote from the state that led to the installation of the technological equipment. Their vote followed a conversation with Clerk of the District Court Sharilyn Steube, then-York County Attorney Christopher Johnson and York County Sheriff Paul Vrbka.
The project cost was $26,000 – but the initial cost was to eventually be made up because the costs associated with transporting inmates to court from outside jurisdictions would be going down.
“This project will bring our courtrooms into this century with current technology and save the taxpayers money because we won’t always have to pick up inmates in jails all over the state or in other states to come back here for three minutes of certain types of court hearings,” Johnson said during that meeting with the commissioners. “Those hearings could then be done via video conferencing. It would save money in manhours, travel costs, etc. Not only would it save money, it would also keep those individuals away from the public.”
Steube also noted video conferencing could save major funds when it comes to utilizing interpreters – rather than traveling here, they could do their work via video.
(Editor’s note: Little did they know, in early February, that the court video conferencing would become paramount, for other reasons, in the months ahead).
Four Corners health director discusses Coronavirus situation with county board
It was Feb. 25 when Laura McDougall, director of the Four Corners Health Department, went before the York County Commissioners – echoing what health professionals were saying all around the country – it wasn’t a matter of if the Coronavirus would be an issue here, but it was a matter of when.
“As you know, the Nebraska Medical Center is treating some people who have the virus and the United States has declared a public health emergency,” McDougall told the county board. “The risk for us right now of becoming sick is very low. But we are preparing for when it will come here. There is no vaccine on the horizon yet, we haven’t seen things like this happening in years. We don’t know the clinical picture of this because it is a new disease.”
In the Four Corners District, no one had yet to be monitored, “but we are prepared to do that. Our next step is to work with businesses, schools and officials to make sure that pandemic plans are ready to go. If and when it does come, we will try to slow it down. The main thing we’ll stress is supporting people to self-isolate at home which will be very important.”
McDougall said in a separate interview, “We have been in contact since December with medical partners (hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, even EMS) in the district to update them on the evolving situation. Around 2006-2007 we did a couple of years of intensive planning with these partners for pandemic influenza, and they have been updating those plans through the years. With this new COVID-19 (Coronavirus), they are pulling those plans off the shelves and tweaking them to be used for COVID-19.
“Other community partners have been really paying attention to world events and planning for what could occur, especially local schools and critical infrastructure. The York Chamber and YCDC are also actively helping us to reach local businesses to prepare for the effects a pandemic may have on our local community, health and economy,” she continued.
“I feel very fortunate to call this district my home,” McDougall said. “As we prepare for the unexpected, I am impressed and thankful for the care and concern our elected officials, medical providers, school officials, business leaders, and other community groups have for the welfare of our residents. Our leaders are taking this seriously, and we have a great community that is planning to take care of each other.”
COVID-19 arrives in York County
It was March 12, when York General Health Care Services announced there would be changes to patient visitation practices and protocol within its campuses. It was March 17 when everything started to change – city council and county board agendas were pared back to reduce the size of crowds at meetings, the city made a plan to close facilities to the public, visits to the county jail ended and school was “temporarily closed until the end of the weekend so plans for the future can be made.”
On March 19, the county closed the main floor offices in the courthouse and the York schools closed with a plan for it to remain that way until April 3.
Toilet paper became a hot commodity and city public works staff had to make public recommendations on how to not harm the city’s sewer system. The county made a response plan and the Nebraska Department of Education told the state’s schools to prepare for “alternative learning” by March 23.
On March 20, the first online community sector meeting was held via Zoom (a term not many had heard of before but now recognize to be a part of common life). The way funerals were held radically changed and the York movie theater closed its doors.
On March 21, disaster declarations for the city and the county were signed and the city’s mayor asked bars and restaurants to please limit the number of people they allowed in their facilities. The ethanol plant near York began manufacturing hand sanitizer and many local groups began sewing face masks.
Online learning began for all students in the area and health care facilities were closed to the public – creating the need for many “visits through closed windows.” Churches began closing and the schools began outdoor food distribution programs for students. On March 25, the York Public School closed indefinitely, for onsite learning.
On March 31, it was announced that the first case of COVID-19 had been confirmed in York County. And on that same day, the 10-person rule was put into place for the entire state.