Kitsap Sun staff | Kitsap Sun
We’ll send 2021 packing on Friday. But before we say goodbye to the year, here’s a tour through some of the biggest headlines and ongoing stories the Kitsap Sun covered throughout the year.
Revelers gladly bid adieu to 2020, thinking that 2021 would bring better fortunes when it came to the pandemic.
But as the new year brought a rise in COVID-19 cases in Kitsap, it also contributed to a strain on hospital resources. Staffing levels at St. Michael Medical Center in Silverdale grew progressively worse as care transitioned to the newly opened facility that combined the old Bremerton campus and the Silverdale campus. The hospital reduced all non-urgent surgeries and procedures and redirected its staff to the emergency room and others of the hospital that needed help.
“We have this shiny new hospital and not enough people to staff it,” said a nurse on one of the floors at the hospital who also asked to remain anonymous. “It’s been disastrous since we’ve gone out there,” referring to the move to the new hospital.
January also brought a return to in-person learning for students in the youngest grades at public schools across Kitsap County. School districts brought back kindergartners and first-graders part-time for four days a week after a fall semester that was completely online. For kindergarteners, it was the first time stepping foot in a classroom – in January. Students in older grades also gradually returned to classrooms throughout the winter and spring.
“I’m so happy to get the kids back in school,” said Suzanne Burton, a music teacher at Esquire Hills. “They really need this in-person instruction.”
On Feb. 1, 16-year-old Lola Luna, of Bremerton, was charged with second-degree murder for the stabbing death of Syanna Puryear-Tucker, also 16.
The death of Puryear-Tucker, who left behind her 5-month-old daughter, shook the community.
“It doesn’t seem real,” said Sheryl Turner, Syanna’s mother, in June.
Puryear-Tucker’s death was one of several young lives lost in Kitsap in 2021. Also mourned were the deaths of Marina Miller, Hannah Wachsman and Hazel Kleiner, three Bainbridge Island teens celebrating the end of volleyball season in March who were killed in a car crash. Will Huck, 17, a South Kitsap resident who had just graduated from Vashon Island High School, drowned in June in Horseshoe Lake. Eighteen-year-old twins, Connor and Chelsea Hill, died in August in their home near Clear Creek Road. The twins, enrolled at Klahowya Secondary School, were severely disabled and found murdered, and their mother, Sherrie Hill, has been charged in their deaths. In October, 19-year-old Tyrone Sero was abducted from a South Kitsap gas station and later shot to death. Three suspects are being held in the Kitsap County Jail for his murder.
Also in February, Kitsap County prosecutors released people from jail, and officers from Kitsap law enforcement agencies were instructed to immediately stop arresting people for drug possession in the wake of the Washington State Supreme Court decision in the case of Shannon Blake. The court struck down the state’s felony drug possession law because — unlike the laws of every other state — it did not require prosecutors to prove someone knowingly or intentionally possessed drugs.
“Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature’s powers,” Justice Sharon Gordon McCloud, of Bainbridge Island, wrote for the majority.
Early March kicked off with the long-awaited return of the USS Nimitz carrier to its homeport of Bremerton.
It was a deployment the crew will never forget. Some 3,000 of the ship’s sailors quarantined for COVID-19 and served their nation over a globetrotting 99,000 miles. The 11-month trip included stops and sorties in Africa, the Middle East and the South China Sea, in what Navy leaders described as a record-setting deployment for an aircraft carrier dating back to World War II.
“The crew knew, from the beginning, how important it was to stay healthy, because for a while there was Nimitz, and that was it,” its Captain, Max Clark, told the Kitsap Sun. “For a while there, we said, ‘if it’s not Nimitz, it’s nobody.'”
Passenger-only fast ferry service from Southworth to downtown Seattle began in late March, offering a direct link to Kitsap commuters who previously had to link up with King County’s Vashon Island water taxi or dealt with other ways of getting through West Seattle to the downtown area via Fauntleroy. The crossing time for the Kitsap Transit service is a little less than 30 minutes.
Kitsap Transit voters passed a sales tax increase in 2016 to pay for the fast ferry program. Bremerton service started in 2017 and Kingston launched in 2018. Southworth service marked the final, full build-out of that plan.
In April, the Washington Legislature, with both houses controlled by Democrats, sent a slate of police reform bills to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. The bills curbed police tactics and equipment, created an independent office to review the use of deadly force by police, required officers to intervene if their colleagues engage in excessive force, and made it easier to decertify officers for bad acts.
“When Gov. Inslee signs (the measures) into law, they will have real impacts on Black Lives, as well as the lives of Indigenous and other People of Color,” said Sakara Remmu, lead strategist for the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance.
A coalition of Washington state law enforcement unions said it could accept some of the bills, including the arbitration reform and duty-to-intervene bills but expressed concern that the decertification bill threatened the due-process rights of officers. The Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs opposed the bill restricting police tactics and the measure requiring “reasonable care” in using force. Many Republicans joined them.
April 15 was referred to as “Vax Day. While the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Washington state began in December and eligibility gradually opened up to various groups in the following months, the broadest eligibility category arrived in mid-April, and everyone age 16 and up got the green light for a shot. As many as 1.5 million people statewide became eligible for vaccine doses, and people scrambled to snap up appointments.
Washington State Ferries trimmed back service in May, pointing to a fire on the ferry Wenatchee and “crewing challenges.” Staffing issues lingered over the summer and would become a persistent issue throughout the rest of the year. The agency scaled back the number of sailings it offered significantly in October, and while it has been able to bring some service back at times, maintaining the levels the agency had pre-pandemic has been elusive. The Bremerton-Seattle run, in particular, was hit hard by service cuts, as it’s been on one-boat service since early September.
Also in May, the state’s Department of Transportation announced what is likely the largest fish-barrier removal project ever undertaken on the Kitsap Peninsula. Chico Creek, an abundant salmon stream, is currently channeled into two vastly undersized culverts under Highway 3 that prevent the keystone species’ population there from achieving its full potential. In a $58.3 million project that started in earnest in September, the state will replace the culverts with a bridge, allowing the creek to return to a meandering, natural state once work wraps up in 2023.
The issue was evident early in 2021 — Kitsap County reported 294 residential building permits in January — and by June county and city departments, seeing similar spikes, were so overwhelmed that delays for issuing permits were backlogged by three months. And the permit applications to start projects didn’t relent its pace — by May the county had received a higher total than all of 2020, leading to a summer building season almost never seen before in Kitsap.
“We were calling it a tsunami, which is pretty accurate,” Kitsap County Chief Building Official David Kinley said at the time.
By mid-summer nearly 3,000 single- or multi-family units were underway in Bremerton, a project of more than 500 homes was being planned outside Silverdale, an expansion of McCormick Woods in Port Orchard was ongoing, a 730-home project in Kingston was prepped to begin and Poulsbo officials — where 100 units were in the works at Olhava and a major apartment complex downtown broke ground in the fall — were estimating that more than 1,000 residences are scheduled to arrive in coming years. And prices? The addition of supply hasn’t yet met demand, and the median single-family home price in Kitsap was up nearly $100,000 when compared with a year prior.
Housing wasn’t all that was hot. We even had a “heat dome.”
The record-breaking weather phenomenon that arrived in the Pacific Northwest at the end of the month set records in Kitsap with multiple days above 100 degrees. The heat shuttered restaurants to protect workers from hot kitchens, shut down the shipyard and contributed to at least four deaths. At Bremerton National Airport, the mercury reached 110 on June 28, an absolute scorcher and all-time high before a marine push of cool air finally broke the stubborn heatwave and brought back a more temperate summer climate, albeit one marked by several very dry months where burning was banned until fall rains returned.
The COVID-19 delta variant began making headlines during the height of summer, and the Kitsap Public Health District announced the first case of the variant had been confirmed on 14, which is about three months after the variant was first detected in April in Washington state.
Meantime, in Bremerton, a new warship came that had never visited before. The USS Theodore Roosevelt and its thousands of sailors arrived from San Diego in July, with the 1,100-foot-long aircraft carrier due for 18 months of maintenance at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
“We’re super excited to be here in Bremerton,” said Theodore Roosevelt Capt. Eric Anduze, as he disembarked the ship in Bremerton for the first time.
Cases of the delta variant spiked over August and wouldn’t peak until mid-September. Hospitalizations and deaths climbed too, and St. Michael Medical Center struggled as the delta wave crashed locally. The wave brought a devastating number of deaths across the country and in Kitsap, with the number of people dying from COVID-19 reaching the highest in September, with 58 deaths, and 125 hospitalized cases in October, according to the Kitsap Public Health District. Many of the hospitalizations were among those unvaccinated against the virus.
In August, Kitsap Mall was slated to be sold at a foreclosure auction after the mall’s owner, Kitsap Mall LLC, stopped paying on its nearly $77 million loan. The shopping center was purchased in 2013 by Chicago-based Starwood Retail Partners for $127 million, and the company invested millions more to update the mall’s aesthetics. After being postponed multiple times, the auction was closed on Dec. 17. U.S. Bank National Association, as the sole bidder who held the loan, will be the mall’s new owner. The bank bid $30 million in the auction.
The first day of the month brought joy to students and parents alike, as Kitsap’s public school districts opened to all students, full time, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited for school,” said North Kitsap sophomore Ingrid Burchil. “I’m just so happy to be fully in person after a year-and-a-half.”
Also in early September, Kitsap County courts suspended jury trials for a third time as COVID-19 cases surged in Kitsap County, compounding the backlog of cases that has been accumulating. Though most criminal cases filed in the courts resolve without trial, the possibility of proceeding to trial, and the risks and costs to both sides of a case, applies pressure to plea bargain. Without that pressure, cases languish.
The Bremerton-based USS Connecticut collided with an underwater mountain in the distant waters of the South China Sea Oct. 2, injuring 11 of its sailors and badly damaging the stealthy sub. It took until late December for the Seawolf-class boat to limp home, a rough journey atop the waters of the Pacific Ocean. The boat’s leadership was also fired due to a “loss of confidence.”
The submarine, which also faced an outbreak of bedbugs earlier in the year, is likely out of action for the foreseeable future, as millions of dollars in repairs will be needed at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.
Also in October, orders by President Joe Biden and Gov. Jay Inslee that mandated federal and state workforces be vaccinated against COVID-19 led to protests and, in some cases, workers either quitting or being terminated for refusing the shot. But the vast majority of workers at the federal and state level chose to get jabbed.
At the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, for instance, the vaccination rate surged from around one in two workers to about 90% by the end of the year.
“The only way someone can stay employed at PSNS&IMF is to be vaccinated or be exempt on a legitimate medical or religious basis,” PSNS Commander Capt. Jip Mosman told employees in September.
By the end of the year, however, it still remained unclear how unvaccinated workers exempted for medical and religious reasons would be incorporated into the shipyard’s vaccinated workforce. The shipyard began routine COVID-19 testing for those not vaccinated.
A battle over books in school libraries playing out nationally landed in Kitsap County, with Central Kitsap School District officials removing the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe, from the shelves of Olympic High School following a complaint by a parent. A parent dissatisfied with the removal further asked Kitsap County’s prosecutor to file charges against school officials, alleging the book contained “graphic pornography to include pedophilia.”
Prosecutor Chad Enright declined to file charges. And in December, after receiving criticism from community members and LGBTQ advocates for removing the book without going through the district’s established policies, CK reversed course and returned the book to the library shelf.
And, as school continued through the fall, school administrators in the North and Central Kitsap school districts began stepping into the classroom to fill in as guest teachers as schools struggled to find more substitute teachers. A shortage of bus drivers led South Kitsap School District to consolidate bus routes.
The shortage of workers faced by school districts was an extension of challenges faced by all industries in Kitsap and across the nation, as a shortage of workers challenged employers after pandemic restrictions had been lifted.
Hope that had emerged in November that the pandemic would ease with the announcement that children as young as 5 could receive Pfizer’s vaccination for COVID-19 was tempered in December with the announcement that a potentially more contagious variant dubbed “omicron” had been detected in South Africa.
On Dec. 24, the Kitsap Public Health District announced that the variant had been detected in Kitsap County. While case rates have diminished since delta’s peak in September, it remains to be seen what effect the new variant will have here.
Six months after the “heat dome” brought record highs to Kitsap County, a holiday weekend snowstorm ushered in cold air that broke records for freezing temperatures in Bremerton. While it was 110 on June 28, it was 27 on Dec. 28, the lowest high on that day since 1899, according to records kept by the National Weather Service.
Kitsap Sun staff members Andrew Binion, Josh Farley, Peiyu Lin, David Nelson, Nathan Pilling and Kimberly Rubenstein and the Associated Press contributed to this report.