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7 moments that defined 2020 in Western New York

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Posted at 5:23 PM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 17:53:55-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — From a global pandemic to a presidential election, to nationwide racial justice protests and beyond, Western New York saw a year of change in 2020. We're looking back at seven defining moments that affected families living here.

March 16 - All gyms, movie theatres, casinos to close statewide at 8 p.m.
On Monday, March 16, the first coronavirus-related shutdowns were announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The initial shutdown closed all gyms, movie theaters and casinos. It also limited restaurants and bars to takeout and delivery. At the time, Erie County had only seven positive COVID-19 cases. It now has more than 36,000.

In the days, weeks and months that followed that initial shutdown, non-essential workers were sent to work remotely, children started learning at home, and businesses would close and reopen through a series of updated state guidelines.

April 27 - Unemployment frustrations begin in spring, continue through summer
When many Western New Yorkers began losing their jobs due to COVID-19 shutdowns, they faced a new problem: some waited weeks, if not months, to begin receiving unemployment benefits. The Department of Labor's call enter saw a 1600% increase in volume. An error in April led to at least three dozen people in New York State receiving unemployment information for another person.

In May, New York State highlighted some common errors that were leading to unemployment delays. One common issue involved the difference between traditional unemployment and pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA).

In July, a system update led to Department of Labor delays delivering $600 payments. More issues with delays were reported in September, this time with KeyBank held responsible.

May 30 - Protests and curfews as Western New York reacts to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, for which four police officers were later arrested and charged, protests erupted around the country. In Downtown Buffalo, protests began on May 30. Though they began peacefully, incidents of vandalism were reported. Police were seen using tear gas to disperse crowds, and people were seen throwing objects. Arrests were made, and a 10:30 p.m. curfew was imposed that Saturday night.

Shortly after curfew took effect, protesters remained in Niagara Square. A van ignited in flames. A man was seen on video tossing a burning object into City Hall, starting a small fire.

The following Thursday, June 4, protests in Buffalo made national headlines when video obtained by WBFO showed protester Martin Gugino being shoved by police. Two days later, two officers involved were arrested and charged with felony assault. They were put back on the payroll in July, because of a 30-day limit on unpaid suspensions. Their status was changed to suspended with pay. Gugino was released from the hospital at the end of June.

June 30 - Western New York begins Phase Four of reopening
The region reached the final phase of the four-phase NY Forward reopening strategy on June 30. Phase Four allowed low-risk indoor and outdoor activities to reopen, and for media production to resume. However, controversy started a week before Phase Four was implemented in Western New York, when details emerged that gyms, shopping malls and movie theaters would not be included.

Gyms were allowed to open on August 24 with restrictions, but were shut down again briefly in part of Erie County when the state switched to a color-coded zone strategy. The state then changed restrictions within orange zones that allowed gyms to reopen again in limited capacity. One Orchard Park gym chose to protest the closing strategy for gyms. Athletes Unleashed was fined $15,000 following a confrontation between business owners and authorities. In December, the gym won a court case allowing them to reopen at 100% capacity.

September 1 - Students begin returning to school
In July, New York State set a deadline for schools to release their re-opening plans by the end of the month. On September 1, Alden became the first district to welcome students back to the classroom.

Districts used different models to introduce all-remote or hybrid learning options, and this caused controversy in some districts. In Williamsville, concerns over the communication of the school's reopening plan-- including a delay for some learners-- led to the eventual resignation of its superintendent, Dr. Scott Martzloff, after months on administrative leave.

When the state switched to color-coded zones, some districts in Erie County, including Buffalo, returned to fully remote models required by Orange Zone guidelines. A change to those guidelines in December allowed districts to start returning students to the classroom as soon as December 14. However, Buffalo Public Schools remained on a fully remote model. The district expects to invite the first students back to the classroom on February 1.

November 6 - School zone camera ticketing program draws questions
In January, school zone cameras were introduced in the City of Buffalo. The cameras, marked by signage and lights, take pictures of vehicles going 25 miles per hour or higher in school zones, where the designated speed limit is 15 miles per hour. The program was suspended when remote learning started.

The program was re-instated in a limited fashion in October, with only five cameras back in use. In November, an I-Team investigation uncovered the program generated almost $2 million in seven days. Following the report, hours were limited on the cameras.

In December, the Buffalo Common Council requested a "pause" on the program. Mayor Byron Brown said he had no plans to make any changes.

December 19 - Bills win first AFC East title in 25 years
In a season where fans have not attended a single game, the Buffalo Bills are on their most successful run in more than two decades. On December 19, with two games to go in the season, the Bills clinched an AFC East championship for the first time since 1995 with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hundreds of fans showed up at the airport to welcome the team.

The team's success solidifies not just a playoff berth, but at least one game at Bills Stadium. New York State is working with the team on a plan that could bring more than 6,000 fans to the stadium.