Nurse practitioner Patricia Hutchins peers out of the COVID-19 testing tent in April 2020 in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

It’s that time of year when the Sun Journal presents readers with what we consider the top 10 news stories of the year. Typically, we’d introduce the list with a nice introduction, pointing out the highs and lows of the year in a clear and balanced way. 

But this was 2020, a span of 365 days in which almost nothing was typical. 

What can we say about this wretched and confusing year that hasn’t been muttered, sobbed or screamed a thousand times already? What can we say about a year in which a Bethel business’s owners became nationally notorious as they rebelled against the governor’s mask-wearing requirements? What can we say about a year in which there were heated debates over whether worshipers should be allowed to attend church services? What can be said about a time in which students graduating from high school are cheered on by a limited number of masked family members sitting in their cars drive-in style? 

How to describe a year during which the most important business was conducted by people, some of them in pajamas, who never even left their living rooms? A year who’s avatar will likely be the humble face mask or possibly a Zoom screen?

2020 was a frustrating and difficult time, and although there likely were some triumphs here and there, the year will be remembered for the pandemic that completely reshaped the way we live as it killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and sickened millions more. 

That pandemic, of course, is at the very top of the list. 


Lewiston High School Principal Jake Langlais delivers a personalized letter and a Class of 2020 yard sign to the home of Josh Lane, not pictured, in May 2020. Lane was not home when Langlais stopped by, but Lane’s classmates Brandon Hough, center, and Jeremiah Williams, far left, were waiting out front. Langlais left the letter and sign with Lane’s mother. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

COVID-19 and all its related madness

Students were kept home from school. Churches closed. Small, local businesses forced to drastically modify and then to shut down completely.

Events canceled. The concept of social distancing introduced. Half the population working from home. Travel restricted, mask mandates issued and throngs gathering in the streets to protest it all.

The back-cover blurb for the latest dystopian work of fiction?

No. COVID-19 wreaking its havoc across the land, and in such a bizarre number of ways, it’s impossible to recount them all.

On March 12, the Sun Journal published a story to announce the sad news that COVID-19 — until then, more of a distant sort of phenomenon — had come to Maine.


“Maine’s first presumptive case of COVID-19 was seen in an Auburn woman,” the story began, “who came through the Central Maine Medical Center emergency department in Lewiston on Tuesday, a hospital spokesperson confirmed Thursday afternoon.”

Immediately after, Gov. Janet Mills issued a stay-at-home mandate, a concept that some would come to describe as a “lockdown.” It became just one more word to include in the COVID vernacular as many states and communities took the same action.

What followed was a kind of madness that unfolded before our eyes at a quickening tempo. What had been an abstract source of worry a day or two before, was now a vivid and immediate concern that would disrupt our lives in untold ways.

Local hospitals began screening every patient who came through the door for COVID-19. Grocery stores were ordered to limit the number of customers they would allow inside at any given time. Customers were asked to wear face coverings, and at the end of April, Mills issued the first of her mask mandates, a matter that would become the focus of debate in Maine in the months to come.

Most of Maine’s parks and beaches were ordered closed. States began issuing quarantine orders for anyone traveling across their borders. Events that had been taking place for decades, through good times and through bad, were abruptly canceled.

“Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer and Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque agreed Monday that postponing the Maine bicentennial celebration until next year, including the state parade in Lewiston-Auburn, was a prudent decision in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a Sun Journal story June 8, and by that point, absolutely nobody was surprised by the announcement.


Fourth of July celebrations? Not a chance. The local festival for that occasion was canceled, too, as it was pretty much everywhere across the nation. The popular Great Falls Balloon Festival and Dempsey Challenge followed suit, as did the many other regular festivals and cultural offerings in the region.

As fall approached, school departments began discussing and debating how they would teach children in the coming school year. Local school systems settled on hybrid models — another term for the vernacular — that would allow some days for in-person learning and others for learning from home, using new (and expensive) technologies. Students and their parents were given a choice: let the them go to classes a few days a week, or keep them home full time?

The hybrid models seemed to sate most people, but they were often flimsy fixes at best. As soon as one student, teacher or associated person on the periphery at a given school was diagnosed with COVID-19, in-person learning often had to be scratched, notifications needed to be sent out and the schools had to be sanitized.

By the end of the year, in spite of news of a fast-tracked vaccine, there was no relief in sight. With numbers skyrocketing among the COVID-weary population, more mask mandates were issued. More businesses were forced to change the way they operate and the debates over our reactions to COVID-19 only increased in intensity.

What will 2021 bring on the COVID-19 front? Optimism builds as health officials begin distribution of the vaccine, but with numbers still high and a holiday bump expected, limited supplies of the vaccine and news of virus variants, it’s anybody’s guess.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators walked through streets and neighborhoods of Lewiston and Auburn on June 1, 2020. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Black Lives Matter and local activism


As if the reaction to COVID-19 wasn’t enough turmoil to start the year, in May, the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis acted as a catalyst for massive protests that would inflame the entire country, including the Twin Cities.

As entire city blocks burned at the hands of protesters in some parts of the country, people in Lewiston and Auburn were understandably wary when protests came to their main streets.

On May 31, dozens assembled at Festival Plaza in Auburn with signs stating “Silence is complicity” and “Justice for George Floyd.”

“These were a few of the messages on signs held by some of the few dozen people Sunday afternoon who took to the streets of Lewiston and Auburn to protest police brutality and the death a week ago of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” according to a Sun Journal story.

That was a sign of bigger things to come, although fears of widespread damage and violence here proved to be unfounded.

In early June, a Black Lives Matter protest drew more than 700 demonstrators to Lewiston, where they demanded justice for George Floyd.


“Waving homemade signs and chanting, the mostly young and racially diverse crowd surged through the streets of Lewiston and Auburn insisting that a more just system is possible,” according to that Sun Journal account.

That protest, the biggest of them, was the third Black Lives Matter protest here in a week and yet by all accounts, no violence or significant damage resulted.

The protests would continue into the summer in some parts of the country, but they ended in the Twin Cities before spring turned to summer. By that point, police departments in both cities were talking publicly about acquiring cameras for their officers and making other modifications to their protocols to increase transparency and inspire greater confidence.

This photo simulation shows the view northwest from Wilson Hill Road in West Forks toward the proposed CMP transmission line. Rendering/simulation courtesy of Central Maine Power

CMP corridor moves forward, despite local opposition

At the start of the year, it seemed like everyone was talking about the controversial CMP corridor project. Signatures were being gathered and moves were afoot to force a statewide vote on the matter.

The $1 billion project, officially dubbed the New England Clean Energy Connect, calls for a 145-mile high-voltage direct transmission line from Western Maine to Lewiston, partially buried in a tunnel beneath the Kennebec River Gorge. A new corridor through Maine forest would need to be created for about one-third of the line in Western Maine, while the rest of the new line would follow an existing corridor to Lewiston. The line will connect to a yet-to-be-constructed and permitted transmission line in the province of Québec by Canadian public utility company Hydro-Québec.

Not everybody is a fan. In the earliest part of the year, there was plenty of vocal opposition to the plan on both sides of the Canadian border.

Then COVID-19 was upon us and most folks were too busy attending to the massive disruptions to their lives to get involved in protests over the CMP plans. The NECEC plan kept plowing forward throughout the year.

In May, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit to Central Maine Power Co. for its construction of the corridor.

In July, in an environmental analysis of the planned corridor, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a report stating it had determined the project would have “no significant impact” on the environment.

There were, however, still plenty of people paying attention, and opposition to the plan was renewed with zeal. In October, several groups filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers over its analysis, alleging it was flawed and inadequate.

The Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Sierra Club’s Maine Chapter allege in the lawsuit in U.S. District Court that the corps failed to rigorously assess the transmission corridor project’s environmental impact on Western Maine.

On Nov. 4, CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had granted its approval for the project.

On Nov. 12, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Sierra Club’s  Maine Chapter filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent work from starting, asking a judge to delay any tree-clearing until the court can fully consider the still-pending lawsuit filed by the three groups.

The groups argued in their motion that the 53 miles of new power line corridor would “forever fragment the largest contiguous temperate forest in North America and perhaps the world.”

Ultimately, that move failed, as well. Nine days before Christmas, a federal judge denied the motion for a preliminary injunction that would have delayed CMP from getting started on clearing trees.

End of story? Not quite.

Sue Ely, attorney for the groups that filed for the injunction, said the judge’s ruling does not resolve the central legal dispute.

“Our lawsuit challenging the flawed federal review for the CMP corridor will continue to move forward regardless of today’s decision,” Ely said in a statement issued Dec. 16. “Given the enormous impact this project would have on the woods, waters and recreational economy of Western Maine, Mainers deserve an answer to why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted their assessment behind closed doors and failed to properly assess the widespread damage that would be done.

“As it has done throughout this process,” Ely continued, “CMP is trying to predetermine an outcome by rushing to construction before appropriate federal review has been completed and all the lawsuits challenging this project are fully heard and decided. Instead of acting to protect profits for its shareholders, CMP must respect the concerns Maine people have raised about the damage the corridor would cause.”

CMP has complained that the delays have already pushed the project back from a planned in-service date of Dec. 13, 2022, to May 31, 2023.

A massive explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay about noon on April 15 ripped apart a portion of the plant owned by Pixelle Specialty Paper Solutions. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Androscoggin Mill explosion

On the morning of April 15, a massive explosion rocked the Androscoggin Mill in Jay, shaking the ground, sending debris flying everywhere and producing a plume of black smoke that was visible for miles around. 

In the earliest moments after the blast, there was confusion and a sickening sense of deja vu — heavy in the minds of some was a blast in Farmington seven months earlier that killed a veteran firefighter and injured seven others. 

But when the smoke cleared Wednesday afternoon in Jay, fire officials announced, with evident relief, that no one had been injured. 

“The headline today,” said Roxie Lassetter, human resources manager for mill owner Pixelle Specialty Solutions, “is that everyone is accounted for and there are no injuries on that mill site. It’s nothing short of a miracle and we are grateful.” 

The fact that no one had been seriously injured was almost a cause for celebration in a time where nerves were already rattled over the COVID-19 pandemic and from recent tragedies in the area. 

But the explosion, centered on the digester area of the mill, would have far-reaching consequences. For one, the loss of the pulp operation directly impacted between 254 and 382 logging and trucking employees who suddenly faced uncertain futures. 

In July, it was announced that nearly 60 people would be laid off as a result of the explosion. By the end of the year, the news got even worse when the Androscoggin Mill owners announced they would not rebuild the wood pulp digester that exploded and would permanently shut down one paper machine idled by the blast. 

By that point, roughly 177 jobs had been eliminated at the mill since the explosion. If there was any good news to come out of the rubble at that point, it was that Pixelle had established a $1 million fund to support job retraining for those who had been laid off, and owners announced production changes meant to bolster the mill’s long-term viability.

Target announced in 2020 it would be moving to Auburn, taking over the former Kmart on Center Street. AP

2020: A wild ride for business 

When Chipotle Mexican grill opened its doors on Center Street in Auburn Dec. 16, the response was so frantic and heavy, police had to be sent there to control traffic. 

And that frenzy came just a couple weeks after it was announced that Target, a department store longed for by many in the Twin Cities, would move into the site of the old Kmart on Center Street in Auburn sometime in 2021. 

Also on the way: Holy Donut owners elated the community by announcing they would open up a store on Minot Avenue, bringing their sweet stuff to Auburn in coming months.

Clearly with those kinds of big deals moving to the area,  business must be booming  in the Twin Cities, right? 

Well, yes and no. 

For every new business moving into the area, there seemed to be more that were closing. Many of the area’s small businesses took a hit in particular, some of them shutting down for good, when COVID-19 mandates came along. 

Even some of the bigger chains, typically more resilient against drastic changes, succumbed under the pressure.  

In the Lewiston-Auburn area, Ruby Tuesday announced in March they would close their Auburn location as a result of conditions imposed by the pandemic. In April, Krispy Kreme made a similar announcement after promising just a month before that they were not going anywhere.  

More personally crushing to some locally, Chopsticks, an almost universally beloved Chinese restaurant on Park Street in Lewiston, closed abruptly in August after 30 years at that location. 

It was a Dickensian kind of year, at once the best of times and the worst of times. 

Maine’s construction industry remained strong and major private developments were still on track as the coronavirus pandemic hammered other sectors of the economy. By the end of the bizarre year, the news was actually quite good on that front: In Lewiston-Auburn, for instance, more than 650 housing units are underway or proposed and another 104 opened earlier this year in just two developments. 

In November it was announced that Maine’s housing market had rebounded from a pandemic-caused poor spring season and home sales were running ahead of a record-setting 2019, with the Lewiston-Auburn area seeing unprecedented activity according to local real estate agents.

Garrett Durham outlines some of the details of his grow operation from underneath a canopy of marijuana plants on Jan. 30, 2020, at Mystique Way in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Mainers were ready for cannabis 

On Oct. 9, after a very long wait, six stores opened their doors in Maine to customers looking to buy marijuana legally after the state approved retail sales and finally ironed out the rules. 

How would Mainers respond in this year gone mad? 

They went for the cannabis, spending more than a quarter million dollars in that first weekend alone. That’s 6,400 transactions in all, which brought in $25,000 in sales tax. 

Everybody seemed to be happy with this particular new normal, but it didn’t come easy. It had taken almost four years to move from a referendum seeking legalized marijuana to actual retail sales, after Mainers narrowly approved legalization of recreational cannabis at the ballot box in 2016.  

Legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes, a change in state administration, the task of writing the rules and regs, and then the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic combined to make Maine’s rollout the slowest in U.S. history. 

Some things are worth waiting for, though, and as more people got high, so did the numbers. By the end of November, it was reported that Maine had recorded $1.4 million in recreational cannabis sales in the first month alone. 

Auburn school Superintendent Katy Grondin arrives at her retirement parade in June 2020 in a police cruiser driven by Police Chief Jason Moen. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

School superintendents in and out 

For a year that was perhaps the most complex and difficult ever for the schools, there was a whole lot of shaking up going on at the very top. 

In Lewiston, Superintendent Todd Finn resigned after one tumultuous year on the job — a year during which he clashed with School Committee members on a variety of issues. 

Under pressure from the committee, Finn submitted his resignation letter July 8. A week later, the School Committee accepted his resignation and at the same time, named popular Lewiston High School Principal Jake Langlais to serve as interim superintendent. 

Langlais was only interim for a short time. Surprising no one, the highly regarded Langlais was officially named superintendent in a unanimous vote Sept. 14. 

Meanwhile, in Auburn, the community assembled a socially distanced parade in June to bid farewell to Superintendent Katy Grondin, who resigned after nine years on the job. By then, the School Committee had already voted to hire Cornelia Brown as Grondin’s replacement. Brown, hired for a three-year term, came from Augusta where she had served as superintendent for nearly 14 years. 

In Farmington, Regional School Unit 9 Superintendent Tina Meserve was also on the outs, resigning at the start of December after facing ongoing opposition from staff and community members — a clash of personalities made public in October after Meserve was the subject of a no-confidence vote revealing that more than 91% of participating school staff had lost faith in her. 

The vote of no confidence was an echo of Meserve’s past when she served as RSU 16’s superintendent from 2013 to 2018. In June 2017, RSU 16 community members told the school committee they had no confidence in Meserve and presented a petition asking for an independent committee to assess her performance. 

An employee lifts his arms last month to signal the lift is open on opening day at Saddleback Mountain in Sandy River Plantation. Ben Klosowski, second from left, of Groveland, Massachusetts, got the “first chair,” the common term for being the first person up the mountain. Ski patroller Chris Riley, right, of Fayette, and his sons, Thatcher, left, and Tristan, rode the second chair up the mountain. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Saddleback opens slopes after five-year shutdown

Call it an early Christmas miracle. On Dec. 15, the ski lift machinery at Saddleback Mountain in Rangeley purred to life. Men, women and children with skis climbed aboard and took a ride to the top of the slopes. 

After a long, frustrating period of wild speculation and failed negotiations, the Sandy River Plantation ski resort was back in business. 

In January, Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund bought Saddleback’s 6,400 acres from the Berry family for $6.5 million. 

Since the purchase, the area was transformed, beginning with a much-needed, $7.5 million replacement of the 1963 Rangeley double chairlift, which was infamous among local skiers for its long lines and 11-minute ride to the summit. 

The new lift, a quad, shortened that ride to a tad more than four minutes. The base lodge was also updated and its capacity tripled, although skiers during the coronavirus pandemic were being encouraged to use their vehicles to “boot up.” 

Saddleback, in Franklin County, is Maine’s third-largest ski mountain, and had been closed since 2015. Prospective buyers came forward since, but no sale materialized until 2020. 

A massive amount of debris covers the area around the office building of Life Enrichment Advancing People on Sept. 16, 2019, in Farmington, where one firefighter was killed and injured seven people. Officials announced in 2020 that a propane gas line running under the parking area was severed by accident, prompting a buildup of gas in the building’s basement that fueled the explosion. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo

Investigation finalized into LEAP explosion in Farmington 

On Sept. 16, 2019, an explosion at the LEAP building at 313 Farmington Falls Road claimed the life of Farmington Fire Rescue Capt. Michael Bell, and injured six other firefighters and a LEAP maintenance supervisor. 

The blast horrified the community and questions were raised at once, but it wasn’t until midway through 2020 that answers started to come forth. 

The investigation was thorough and in places complex, but in the end the cause of the explosion was more or less what most people had expected — a propane line below the buildings driveway had been severed, allowing gas to accumulate in the basement of the building. It was never determined what sparked the explosion, according to officials.

Techno Metal Post Maine was accused of severing the propane line that went under the parking lot from the tank to the building while it installed safety bollards Sept. 10. The company’s owner, Michael Brochu, entered into a consent agreement with the Maine Public Utilities Commission for alleged violations of Dig Safe law and rules. He agreed to pay a $1,000 fine. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined LEAP $12,000 for “serious violations of health and safety regulations.” 

Besides destroying the LEAP building, the blast heavily damaged or blew apart a number of nearby homes. Several disciplinary actions have been doled out and work began on changing the way propane is treated during construction work. The state Senate voted in March to pass a bill requiring liquefied propane to be added to Maine’s Dig Safe law. 

Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill into law a few days later. 

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins shakes hands with Audrey Hobbs, right, of Turner in February 2020 during a tour of Elmet Technologies in Lewiston. Collins was elected to a record fifth term in the Senate in November following a big-money campaign. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Collins, Golden victorious in tense election year

Politics in 2020 were appropriately crazy. On election night Nov. 3, it was uncertain until late who would come out on top. In the end, two important political figures managed to hang on to their seats, while Mainers were split over who should be president of the country. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins won Maine’s high-profile U.S. Senate race, defeating Democrat Sara Gideon in an intensely negative contest that saw unprecedented spending as part of the national battle for control in Washington. 


After months of speculation that Collins might lose the race, the senator outperformed President Trump in many communities, and defeated Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, even in a smattering of towns that went solidly for Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential contest. 

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, waves on Nov. 4, 2020, during an event in Lewiston following his re-election to a second term to represent Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Meanwhile, Lewiston’s Jared Golden, a first-term U.S. representative in a solidly Republican district, defeated GOP challenger Dale Crafts of Lisbon by a 53-47% margin in territory friendly to President Donald Trump. 

“We showed that voters are hungry for a positive tone, for positive leadership and civility in our public space,” Golden said in a short speech delivered at Democratic headquarters on Lisbon Street. 

In the presidential race, Mainers were again divided. While Joe Biden easily carried the statewide vote because of strong support in southern and coastal communities, President Trump carried the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Winning the more rural and conservative swath of interior and northern Maine earned Trump one of the state’s four Electoral College votes, just as he did in 2016.

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