As the year that never was comes to a close, finally, we take a look back on 2020, an unprecedented span of time ruled by a global pandemic. Whether self-isolating indoors or masked and socially distant outside, Laguna Woods Village staff and residents faced a test in technical and mental strength amid COVID-19.

Even as the active senior living community has been fundamentally deactivated, residents have found new ways to play.

Here are some highlights as we bid 2020 adieu:

  • Noel Hatch returned to lead the city of Laguna Woods as mayor in 2020, with Shari Horne as the mayor pro tem. (Photo by Brooke Becher)

  • Laguna Woods residents Esther Wright, left, and Lois Rubin made the Orange County Register’s list of the county’s 100 most influential people for successfully fighting for a ban on toxic weedkiller in the Village. (Courtesy photo)

  • Laguna Woods resident Irving Piken sits with the All-American Boys Chorus during his 111th birthday celebration Dec. 20, 2019, at the Village Community Center. Piken, born in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 20, 1908, was believed to be the oldest man in the United States. He died Feb. 23, 2020. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Carlos Rojas replaced Tim Moy as chief of Village security. (Courtesy of Laguna Woods Village)

  • The Chinese American Club of Laguna Woods raised $20,000 to help local nonprofits aiding those suffering in the pandemic. From left are Claudia Keller of Second Harvest Food Bank; Henry Lee, president of the Chinese American Club; and John Ing of Illumination Foundation. (Photo courtesy of Chinese American Club)

  • A concert by Frankie Avalon on March 7, 2020, was the final big event at the Laguna Woods Performing Arts Center before statewide stay-at-home orders shut things down. (Photo by Frank D’Amato, Contributing Photographer)

  • Residents protest the lack of open facilities iin Laguna Woods Village on Sept. 18, 2020. Protesters tried to persuade Village Management Services to open facilities within state and county health guidelines.
    (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

New year, new mayor

At the top of the year, the city of Laguna Woods welcomed Noel Hatch back to its helm. He set his sights on getting the OC Public Libraries branch off the ground and on city street beautification during his one-year mayoral term, Hatch said in January.

Perhaps a bit of foreshadowing: In the same interview, Hatch reflected on his favorite development he’s seen since serving public office beginning in 2012.

“One of the things that has really meant something to me is the fact that the Village has … managed to survive some tumultuous times,” he said. “We wondered if we would survive — and we did.”

Influencers among us

The Orange County Register included Village activists Esther Wright and Lois Rubin in its list of the county’s 100 most influential people. The two fought for a switch to organic herbicides and a ban on the use of glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup.

Wright and Rubin formed Non-Toxic Laguna Woods, rallied thousands of residents to join their cause and — in the end — won.

Piken passes

At 111 years old, Village resident and devoted Dodgers fan Irving Piken was believed to be the oldest man in the nation. He died Feb. 23.

As he came up in age, the community would celebrate Piken’s birthdays with annual afternoon bashes in the boardroom of the Community Center.

His final party was spent being serenaded by the All American Boys Chorus and recognized via certificates of commendation from the California State Assembly, the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, and President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump.

New chief in town

To the surprise of many, Village Security Director Tim Moy announced his resignation from his post of three years for an opportunity closer to home  in January.

Moy, a former commander with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, stayed on through February to vet and train Carlos Rojas for the job.

Rojas entered the Village with more than 30 years in law enforcement, 27 of which were spent at the Santa Ana Police Department, including three years as police chief.

As COVID-19 became a part of the public vernacular, Rojas’ job began in a state of emergency and — to some extent — it has remained there.

Performing Arts Center

Renovation on the Performing Arts Center found traction after four years and more than $200,000 in the planning stages — but in a new, more affordable direction.

The Golden Rain Foundation called off the bundled, over-budget plan proposed by SVA Architects and opted for a piece-by-piece approach listing priority items, such as moving from manual to electrical rigging and installing a new HVAC system.

Four GRF directors resigned in wake of the decision, in agreement that the fiduciary function of the board as a separate branch of governance had effectively been compromised once corporate members were considered in the vote.

Security scandal

A private security guard for Laguna Woods Village was found to be impersonating a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in August and pleaded guilty to the charges in October. Donovan Pham Nguyen, 34, has since been let go.

Nguyen was accused of using a fake federal ID badge to buy firearms. He never cleared a background check and was hired under the previous management company.

Councilman Joe Rainey dies

Just 14 months into his new marriage, Councilman Joe Rainey died in November at age 78.

Rainey, who was originally appointed to the Laguna Woods City Council in 2017, resigned suddenly after his health declined in October.

His cancer is thought to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his service in the Vietnam War. He also served as commander of American Legion Post 257 and on the Village Management Services Board of Directors.

“A new normal”

Only a global pandemic could stop Laguna Woods Village from being the active senior community it prides itself in being — and it did.

And there was nothing anyone could do about it, besides self isolate, wear masks and maintain social distance.

The California Public Health Department sanctioned the cancellation of all public gatherings on March 12, immediately canceling club and sporting events and postponing Emeritus classes.

Former teen idol Frankie Avalon performed his doo-wop-era hits at the PAC as the final big event before statewide stay-at-home orders became an ongoing occurrence.

It wasn’t long until neighbors were sharing their best COVID-19 coping tips — paint, write, draw, read, phone a friend, try yoga, join a support group — on how to stay occupied during what seemed to be the longest month of 2020.

Before March was over, the general manager of the Towers, Kristen Orr, kicked her job into high gear, organizing creative ways to keep residents entertained. She booked Tony Rogers to perform outdoors in front of the building, with residents watching from balconies. Daily chair-exercise classes became part of “the new normal” as well as song-and-dance parties performed by staffers.

By April, the call to send home nonessential staff within the Village was made — furloughing about 200 full- and part-time roles — until June 1.

As facilities closed, hours reduced and the majority of Village Management Services staffers worked from home, grassroots efforts to boost morale accelerated.

In May, the Chinese American Club of Laguna Woods raised more than $20,000 in donations from its membership to help local nonprofit groups aiding those suffering the effects of the pandemic.

The beloved Fourth of July golf cart parade returned with exceptional celebration as many members’ first outing since lockdown orders. By August, the Village Maintenance Center transformed into a double-feature drive-in theater, attracting more than 200 moviegoers.

Restlessness prevails

Protesters gathered at Gates 1 and 5 for a two-hour action in September, speaking out against VMS’ conservative approach to COVID-19 regulations. The new group Village Voices of Laguna Woods took issue with regularly scheduled assessment payments despite lockdown orders as well as inconsistencies with state regulation, like VMS’ decision to maintain closure of outdoor recreation such as pools.

And in April, residents — most wearing masks — protested the proposal to use the Ayres Hotel as a possible location to temporarily house homeless coronavirus patients. Ultimately, the plan was scrapped.

But as they say in the business, “the show must go on.” For the first meeting since lockdown, the Theatre Guild channeled street performance roots for an in-car audience in a series of skits, songs, comedy and magic in “The Johnny Carson Show 2020 Edition,” put on in the fall.

Despite all precautions from residents and management, the greatest jump in COVID-19 cases spiked amid a nationwide third wave in December, surpassing 100 cases and 10 deaths in Laguna Woods.

However, hope is on the horizon — the Village formed a task force before the year’s end to fight for representation in the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, as soon as it becomes available.

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