ZOOMING IN ON SHAKESPEARE: Meeting virtually became the norm this year as everything from cultural events to government meetings went from live to online. McCarter Theatre’s Shakespeare Community Reading Group adjusted from gathering in the main lobby to getting together on Zoom. (Photo courtesy of McCarter Theatre)
By Donald Gilpin and Anne Levin
“Princeton Responds to Coronavirus Threat” read the February 5 Town Topics headline. At that point the “threat” seemed overstated and the community’s “response” — assessing individuals who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China — seemed more than sufficient to dispel any risks. There were eleven reported cases in the United States at the time, but none in New Jersey.
In the ensuing eleven months of 2020, the COVID pandemic changed the town of Princeton as it changed the lives of almost everyone across the globe. Eighteen Princeton residents died with confirmed cases of COVID, according to the Princeton Health Department, and an additional 13 deaths (symptomatic but not tested) were probably COVID-related — most in long-term care facilities and almost all in the first three months of the pandemic.
There have been more than 470 cases since the first case was reported in Princeton on March 13, and in the final days of 2020 health officials are continuing to report record numbers of new cases daily. More than 400 Princeton residents have recovered from COVID-19.
STAYING IN TUNE: Seven-year-old Albert Zhou kept up with his cello lessons via Skype with Laurie Cascante, his teacher at Westminster Conservatory of Music. The pandemic took music and dance lessons out of the studio and onto the computer and television screen. (Photo courtesy of Qiwei He)
The pandemic forced Princeton and its residents to adapt in almost every aspect of their lives. Stores and work places shut down; all but essential workers stayed home; lives moved from in-person work, school, play, and socializing to the virtual realm, as online activities multiplied and Zoom became a prominent part of many people’s lives. School buildings and the Princeton University campus were mostly deserted.
“We’re all in this together,” Mayor Liz Lempert proclaimed, and Princeton displayed unprecedented capacity to work collaboratively, as local government, community partners, and generous individuals teamed up to provide much-needed support for struggling institutions, businesses, and neighbors.
Prevailing over the multiple challenges of communications and interactions that were usually restricted to the virtual realm, the Princeton Council finalized a long-debated affordable housing agreement. With the co-leadership of Sustainable Princeton and a host of other environmental organizations, the Council continued to successfully implement its ambitious Climate Action Plan. And the Alexander Street/Road three bridges project, which seemed like a priority at the time it was initiated, was completed on schedule in April.
Though somewhat muted in comparison to gatherings of recent years, demonstrations in Princeton took place in support of Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, diplomacy not war, voting rights, and the post office.
Controversy continued over Westminster Choir College. While Rider University has moved much of the institution to its Lawrence campus, Rider cannot proceed with a sale of the campus as long as legal efforts continue — and they are continuing.
Elections — most notably for mayor, Council, and public School Board, in addition to the national election — were different too, with most voters voting by mail and everybody waiting a bit longer to find out the final results.
And it wasn’t only the coronavirus that contributed to the many changes in town. Princeton will be starting 2021 with a new mayor, a new police chief, and many new leaders taking the helm of many of the town’s most esteemed and influential institutions and organizations.
“Traffic” was the first word in the headline of last year’s 2019 in review article, as the Alexander Street bridges replacement project dragged on and other roads into town were backed up with lines of frustrated drivers. But 2020 has been a year like no other. Suddenly, in March 2020, the roads were no longer congested and the perennial Princeton parking problem lessened, but the pandemic continues to take its toll in so many other devastating ways.
SILENCE ON THE SQUARE: Palmer Square was practically empty on the afternoon of Friday, March 20 as residents and visitors heeded requests to stay at home and practice social distancing. (Photo by Charles R. Plohn)