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A Look Back at West Hartford’s Top Stories of 2020

West Hartford sign on Park Road. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

As 2020 comes to an end (finally), We-Ha.com looks back at West Hartford’s most read stories of the year.

By Ronni Newton

Happy New Year, and a hearty welcome to 2021.

As the calendar year comes to an end, I always think it’s interesting to take a glance into the rearview mirror, to see which West Hartford stories and issues attracted the most interest and attention.

The saying is that “hindsight is 20/20,” and for most people, it feels very good to have 2020 exist only in hindsight and to bid farewell to a year that was at best strange, and at worst, tragic beyond anyone’s imagination.

A few pieces of good news about our business: We-Ha.com was officially launched in September 2014, and now in our sixth full year of operation we’ve seen incredible growth in readership. During the past calendar year, I’m very proud to report the site has had just over 2.8 million page views – from 983,644 unique visitors.

We now have 10,506 Facebook followers and 3,713 Twitter followers, and subscriptions to our free Monday/Wednesday/Friday email newsletter continue to increase and now exceed 6,500.

We’ve had as many as 10,000 viewers on the Facebook Live roundtables that John Lyons and I have been hosting at least every few weeks since March. Our guests have included Gov. Ned Lamont as well as Mayor Shari Cantor, Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore, other representatives of West Hartford Public Schools, Town Council and Board of Education members, Police Chief Vernon Riddick, and experts in various fields including infectious diseases, vaccines, and mental health.

There are many more features we would love to be able to add to We-Ha.com, and we would also like to hire more freelance writers to provide additional perspective and cover more things happening in the community.

We-Ha.com is a small, locally-owned business. The site is primarily advertiser supported and we remain committed to providing our content without a paywall. Despite our continued growth in readership, however, we have seen our revenues suffer during this past year as many of our advertisers were also suffering. And while I try to personally stay away from that side of the business, I firmly believe that an ad on We-Ha.com is one of the best ways to get exposure in the local market (there are a lot of eyeballs on the site, and the ads appear on all pages), and I hope that as optimism for an improved economy increases, so will our advertising revenue.

It’s tough to survive on the advertiser-supported model, so earlier this year we added a way for readers to provide direct support for our mission, and thank those who have already contributed through PressPatron.com. At the bottom of this article, and at the bottom of every article (or in the top righthand corner of the home page), there is a “Become a Supporter” button. If you are able, we welcome your support.

Also, please don’t ever hesitate to email your suggestions or comments to me at [email protected].

As of the third week of March, some West Hartford restaurants had closed temporarily, but signs in the window of others indicated that they were open only for take-out, with some also offering curbside pick-up or delivery. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

Here are our Top 20 of 2020:

  1. While tragedies typically lead the list of top stories, and there were certainly many tragedies in 2020, the story that received the most page views was “West Hartford Restaurants Open for Take-Out and Delivery.” I was so grateful when Dexter McCann, who was an intern in the summer of 2019 and returned from March 2020 until he went back to college in August 2020, created the original table of restaurants. The initial table was created on March 19, just days after restaurants were forced to close for indoor dining. Dexter taught me to update it, which I did at least every few days through May, when outdoor dining started to return. Since it was published, the story has had 30,397 page views, and while it’s not necessarily up-to-date with current information, it does have the websites and phone numbers of 111 West Hartford restaurants all in one place and can still be a useful guide if you’re trying to think of a place to eat (or order takeout from).
  2. A restaurant story also comes in at No. 2 on the list of top stories. Getting ranked high on Google can sometimes be random, and something about “600 Connecticut Restaurants are COVID Casualties” sent its page views soaring. The Nov. 22 story, written by Hugh McQuaid at CTNewsJunkie.com and published on We-Ha.com through our collaborative agreement (with a bit of West Hartford localization), garnered more than 25,000 page views. Thankfully our West Hartford restaurants have received strong support from the community and over the summer benefitted from record numbers of outdoor diners and, for those in the Center and Blue Back Square, additional outdoor dining capacity in the corrals erected by the town. More help is finally on the way as well, with business recovery grants from the state announced last week, particularly targeting small-to-mid-sized businesses in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, and a new round of PPP coming available through the federal government’s just-passed stimulus package,
  3. Shea Williams grew up in West Hartford, graduating from Conard High School in 2014, and when I interviewed her by phone on March 22, the then-23-year-old analyst and grad student was on day 10 of quarantine in her New York City apartment after contracting COVID-19. The resulting story, “West Hartford Native Shares Her Diagnosis and Recovery from COVID-19,” was the first account we published about a patient’s battle with the disease, and more than 23,000 people read it. Shea spent some time back in her family’s West Hartford home after she was no longer contagious and had recovered enough to travel, but has since returned to New York City.
  4. A tragic story, but one unrelated to COVID-19, comes in at fourth place. In January, Conard High School freshman James Oksanen died suddenly due to a medical event.
  5. On March 15, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor declared a State of Emergency due to COVID-19. The town, along with the state, continues to operate in a state of emergency and Gov. Ned Lamont has issued dozens of executive orders related to public health measures, schools, business operations, sports, and more.
  6. Incoming Hall High School freshman Johnathan Benjamin-Adams had been staying with relatives in West Virginia when he went missing in July. Less than a week later, his body was found in a shallow grave, the Hampshire County (West Virginia) Sheriff’s Office reported. To the best of my knowledge, this investigation is still open.
  7. This one was a good news story: DORO Marketplace Brings European-Style Market and Cafe to West Hartford. DORO Marketplace officially opened Sept. 9, and has already become a mainstay of West Hartford’s food scene.
  8. It’s now not uncommon to have 20,000 or 30,000, or even more COVID-19 tests done on any given day in Connecticut, but in the first few months tests were much harder to come by. The goal for the first phase of reopening, on May 20, was to have 42,000 tests completed in a week, and when the state reported the results of nearly 9,000 tests on May 16, it was definitely newsworthy. The positivity rate wasn’t yet a widely-shared metric at that time, because most the testing was mostly for symptomatic individuals, but on May 16 the rate was 6.99%,
  9. The news of LobsterCraft Rolling into West Hartford created quite a bit of excitement, and the Oct. 23 story was the ninth most-read on the We-Ha.com site in 2020. I had a chance to sample a LobsterCraft lobster roll when their food truck visited GastroPark in November, and am anxiously awaiting the opening of the 981 Farmington Ave. location in the spring.
  10. Just days after the town entered a State of Emergency, the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in West Hartford. I’ll never forget where I was when I heard this news and wrote the story: on the way to The White Dress by the Shore in Clinton for my daughter’s first wedding dress fitting. The news wasn’t unexpected, and just in case something happened I had asked my daughter to drive and brought my laptop with me in the car. I started writing the breaking news story (which was read by 10,556 people) on Route 81 and finished it in the parking lot of the bridal shop. We were the last appointment before the shop closed for several months due to the coronavirus, and when Katie eventually went for her next fitting she wasn’t allowed to bring anyone with her. The final fitting is supposed to take place just a few weeks before the wedding, which after two postponements in 2020 we hope will now be in July 2021.
  11. News related to TV shows always garners plenty of attention, and the story “West Hartford Featured on HGTV’s ‘House Hunters” just two weeks ago was no exception. The couple who appeared on the episode entitled “Afraid To Be Far From Fairfield,” which aired on Dec. 17, now live in West Hartford. I am hoping to be able to connect with them and do a follow up about the experience.
  12. Breaking: West Hartford Public Schools to Close for at Least 2 Weeks. Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore made that announcement on Thursday, March 12, and school buildings closed after class the following day – Friday the 13th. After a week off, remote learning began. The two weeks of buildings being closed soon turned into four weeks, and although there was hope for a while that students would return to in-person classes, that did not happen until the new school year started on Sept. 8.
  13. On April 1, the COVID-19 pandemic reached a new level in West Hartford, with the announcement of the town’s first fatality. Very little information was provided in order to protect the individual’s privacy, and all we know is that the person was between the ages of 50 and 60. On that same date, there had been a total of 23 cases confirmed in town. As of data reported by the state on Dec. 29, there have been 2,544 positive cases and 187 fatalities in West Hartford since the pandemic began.
  14. In July, Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore presented his plan for reopening schools for the 2020-2021 academic year to the West Hartford Board of Education, including options for full in-person classes, hybrid, and remote learning. The school year opened on the hybrid model for all grade levels on Sept. 8, but the elementary schools transitioned to full in-person on Oct. 21. Across all grade levels, roughly 15% of students are enrolled in the district’s remote learning experience.
  15. In February, Maggie McFly’s announced plans to open a location at Westfarms, in the former Ruby Tuesday’s space. The goal was to open in the fall – but of course that was announced before the pandemic hit. I haven’t heard any updates since the initial announcement but will follow up for a status.
  16. One of the most in-depth stories I have written in years, West Hartford Police, Social Services Address Increase in Panhandling, generated not just close to 9,000 page views, but also plenty of discussion. I plan to conduct some follow up discussions with social services and police and provide an update in early 2021.
  17. Throughout the summer, there was very little community spread of COVID-19 in West Hartford or the region. In retrospect, life had settled into a “new normal” where outdoor dining was thriving and although people were asked to wear masks and maintain distancing, it was possible to safely see friends, go to the beach, and to travel to other locations where cases were low. As the summer wound down and school was set to resume, and as people returned from other parts of the country, cases began to rise again. Just before Labor Day, Mayor Shari Cantor and Health Director Aimee Krauss sent out a new warning for people to become more vigilant to avoid a second wave of the coronavirus.
  18. Nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, I still hold my breath as each day’s data is released, but in the early days, small changes were cause for news stories. On Monday, March 23, West Hartford’s second and third positive cases were reported, and the state’s total increased to 417, with the majority of those cases in Fairfield County.
  19. In January, a 28-year-old woman successfully fought back against an attempted carjacking in Bishops Corner, but the trio of suspects found another victim, a 61-year-old woman, and carjacked her. Police recovered the vehicle, and arrested the three suspects, the following day. The following week, West Hartford Police Chief Vernon Riddick announced the formation of an Auto Theft Task Force.
  20. Business Buzz is as a whole the most read feature on We-Ha.com, and on its own one of the columns came in at No. 20 of the top 20 for 2020. On Sept. 7, the lead story in Business Buzz featured plans for Toro Loco Casita to open in the former Petals and Paws at 22 Raymond Rd., as well as plans for Loco Urban Street Food and Toro Taberna to also open in West Hartford. Look for next Monday’s Business Buzz to feature a “best of” the past year’s columns.

West Hartford’s outdoor dining corrals, like these along LaSalle Road, have been very popular throughout the warm weather months. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The top stories are just a snapshot from among the thousands of stories about what took place in town over the course of the year. Close behind those on the above list were:

I hesitate to say I am excited to see what 2021 will bring – because I said the same thing about 2020 a year ago. Once we got past February, the past year was certainly not what any of us expected.

We tried, however, to find as many silver linings or “making lemonade” stories as we could amid the difficult news of the past year, and I’m hopeful that the end is finally in sight with the arrival of the vaccine.

I’m sure there will be plenty of great stories to tell in 2021, and I look forward to another year of bringing hyperlocal news to West Hartford!

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