Residents in the City of Action saw the calendar turn from 2020 to 2021 but faced the reality that the New Year did not immediately bring any relief from the COVID-19 pandemic. There were still many restrictions but also some slow progress, as the region started to return to more of a sense of normalcy as the days unfolded.
This week, we review the top stories of 2021 from January to June, those events that made the pages of The News, in a year that was definitely memorable.
Riverbank Police Services has a new position that has been in progress but was officially established in December to support the needs of the Riverbank community, the city and department. RPS Deputy Za Xiong has taken on the role of Community Resource Deputy in the City of Action. Xiong has been a Deputy with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department for the past five years and for two of those years he has been patrolling the streets of Riverbank, so he has familiarized himself with the city and the community that he serves.
For all the good that it has done, the state organization overseeing high school sports continues to offer guidelines for how, and when, athletics might resume this winter and spring for student athletes. The latest update came Tuesday, Jan. 5, about the same time that the state re-allocated its response to the increasing COVID cases by moving from county-by-county restrictions to regional stay-at-home guidelines. The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) issued guidelines previously and didn’t really make any changes for the Jan. 5 update, just posting the old schedule and the latest COVID-19 Tier information for the region.
The resumption of classes, virtually, and the start of the new spring semester this week has seen the addition of a few new faces in the front office at Riverbank High School. Of course, RHS Principal Greg Diaz is still there, and he welcomed a huge new “Number 1” to his office on Monday, Jan. 11. The large numerical display will replace the last digit in the ‘2020’ set of numbers he got for the campus last year. He used the set to help celebrate the accomplishments of the senior class at the end of the school term last year, somewhat in lieu of formal graduation ceremonies on campus for the Class of 2020. The new ‘2021’ set now stands ready for use at the end of the spring term this year and, hopefully, with students there to enjoy seeing them as well.
The Valley Builders Exchange, Inc. (VBE) donated buckets with some basic tools and a tool belt for Riverbank High School (RHS) students on Thursday, Jan. 14. The tool delivery was held in the morning on RHS campus to support those students participating in upcoming competitions. “As you know we are seeing a huge decline in the trades as well as a shortage of skilled workers, VBE is doing our best to support and invest in our youth,” stated VBE Executive Director Christine Schweininger. “We are here to encourage those kids that are thinking that maybe it is not for me right now to go to a four year but to have a trade and get paid well. All this construction cannot be done without our trade.” A few years ago Building and Construction Instructor Cory Casteel contacted VBE and most recently began working with Schweininger in March last year. During a Zoom meeting between the two along with Adelante High School Principal Ed Vaca, the lack of tools and materials for the students working remotely was discussed.
The weather lately in Riverbank has reminded many of spring, not winter, with a few folks finding refuge from the COVID lockdown by spending an afternoon or two at the Skate Park. One of many park installations throughout Riverbank, it’s located at the corner of Santa Fe and First streets, and is actually built on a portion of what was Staley Park, the remainder of which stretches south from the edge of the facility. Staley Park was named after a former Riverbank Judge and Realtor. At the time, just an odd-shaped patch of dirt and weeds, the Skate Park portion saw groundbreaking in 2003, overseen by then-mayor Bill O’Brien and a group of teenaged enthusiasts who helped with size, function and design of the facility. The remaining park area was then landscaped, with shade trees and lush grass, along with a few benches.
Although California’s regional stay-at-home order was lifted on Monday, Jan. 25 the impact on local schools, including students, teachers and sports programs, remained shrouded in mystery following the rescinding of the order by Gov. Gavin Newsom. With the announcement, what were regional standards for dealing with the situation now revert to the colored county-by-county tiered structure set up by the California Department of Public Health. For Stanislaus County and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley region, that means a return to the ‘widespread’ or ‘purple’ tier, which does allow for re-opening of a variety of businesses but with modifications. The Regional Stay-At-Home Order, officials noted, was lifted in the San Joaquin Valley region due to the fact that the ICU capacity is projected to be at 15 percent in four weeks. The Limited Stay At-Home Order curfew also ended. County officials said the lifting of the order will allow some businesses to reopen after being closed since Dec. 5, 2020. Officials noted that a return to the Purple Tier will likely drastically improve the local economy.
At the beginning of each new calendar year, the Riverbank City Council reviews the various boards and committees that the council members have been serving on and make any changes necessary. This year, with Rachel Hernandez newly elected to the Riverbank City Council she has stepped up to participate in some of the boards and committees as well as the other council members who have retained their positions. Noted in the summary for this item on the council agenda is that the “City’s participation in various intergovernmental boards and committees provides a valuable opportunity for the City’s legislative body to actively engage in the discussion and decisions that affect the residents of Riverbank, and ensure the City’s best interests are taken into consideration.”
American Veterans First (AVF) will be conducting business at a new location, yet still calling Riverbank home, now operating at 6436 Oakdale Road. AVF President John Hinkel and Founder Duke Cooper along with new board members have a larger space to offer the veteran community more opportunities for service. During the last few months of 2020, the local AVF was informed that the building they occupied was going to be redeveloped. This put the organization on the hunt for a new place to call home. The search led them to many different locations in Oakdale and Riverbank.
Riverbank City Manager Sean Scully presented the City Council with considerations for the Motor Fleet’s current issues and future policy at their recent regular meeting. With the majority of the city’s motor fleet being CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) they own a CNG Fast and Slow Fill fueling station located at the Public Works Corporation Yard. The presentation was only a discussion to prepare the council for a future decision regarding the City’s Motor Fleet. These vehicles are used by staff to perform their duties, Scully said. Several years ago through grant funding the City of Riverbank transitioned its fleet from traditional gasoline powered vehicles to CNG. They were also awarded a grant to construct and install the CNG fueling stations.
Though still not open to the public due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, libraries in Stanislaus County are continuing to offer programs. Following are just a few examples of the upcoming virtual programs offered through the library branches, including the Riverbank library at 3442 Santa Fe. The online calendar of events is listed on the website, stanislauslibrary.org and includes the full schedule of programs taking place this February.
What’s a good way to support local athletics and enjoy the Super Bowl game more? Buy your family-sized dinner from the Riverbank High School Sports Boosters on Saturday, but save it for game day on Sunday. That was a hidden benefit from the Boosters Tri-Tip Dinner Fundraiser held over the weekend, with orders taken primarily on Facebook during the prior week. Notice went out of three combinations available for the benefit dinner.
Those who were near the Riverbank High School gymnasium on Friday afternoon might have wondered if there was a concert going on. Well, after a fashion, there was. In much the same way as during regular class weeks, Friday was an opportunity for RHS staff and teachers to stretch their creative legs and hold a ‘virtual’ assembly for students, online that afternoon. It was Karaoke Day at the high school, with masked, and un-masked, performers, individually and in groups, lip syncing to their favorite tunes online, and seen by several hundred students.
There is a dangerous trend that has recently gained popularity among the youth around the region that has turned a harmless bike ride into a game of chicken with motor vehicles. This type of reckless bicycle activity has been seen across the country and more frequently in Riverbank and surrounding areas. With this dangerous trend making its way into Riverbank, Police Chief Ed Ridenour expressed that they are not currently impounding bikes but the illegal activity will not be tolerated and kids will be cited. Riverbank Police Services has seen an increase in calls recently from citizens regarding this illegal bicycle activity.
The vision for the Riverbank Industrial Complex (RIC) is starting to see some light once again as there has been some progress made with the Army and EPA with support from Congressman Josh Harder in collaboration with the City of Riverbank and Mayor Richard O’Brien leading the way. A tour was held last week of a new company that has taken up residence at the RIC called Circulus. “This site has incredible opportunities,” stated Harder regarding the RIC. “There is a lot of unique things about this site. It is already prebuilt for manufacturing opportunity. It already gets 100 percent renewable energy from the Hetch Hetchy Dam. It is really unique for a lot of green energy companies that want to be building on top of that.” Added Mayor O’Brien: “We have a lot of creative industries already here, oil recycling and plastic recycling. What we want to do is continue this theme. These are higher tech, higher paying and more advanced industries which we can capitalize on. This area here has regional significance; it is not just local.”
There have been high hopes for 2021 and as vaccines are distributed the anticipation ramps up that places will open up and events will continue once again. The Riverbank Cheese and Wine Festival for 2021 was discussed at the Riverbank City Council meeting last week where City staff received direction to move forward with plans to proceed with the event the second weekend in October. “I feel great that we can move forward with the planning,” stated Parks and Recreation Director Sue Fitzpatrick. “We do have enough time but have to start right away. I just hope things continue to improve with the COVID situation so we will not have to cancel later.”
New daily cases of COVID-19 in Stanislaus County continue to decline. Currently, Stanislaus County has an adjusted case rate of 15.7 per 100,000 people, and a positivity rate (seven-day average) of 6.3 percent, for the week of March 2, 2021. The County’s testing positivity rate meets the State’s metric to advance to the red tier; however, the adjusted case rate does not. The State requires Stanislaus County to meet the red tier metric in both measures for two consecutive weeks in order to advance.
A long-time resident of Riverbank, Mildred Stephens King, has celebrated her 101st birthday, with the help of family and friends over the weekend. It helped make up for missing out last year, when a planned special observance of her landmark ‘centennial’ birthday last March was squashed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So now, she’s both older and wiser, marking the occasion with a ‘drive-by celebration’ this past Sunday, organized by family and friends.
Stanislaus County remains in purple tier this week with an adjusted case rate of 11.8 cases per 100,000 residents. However, because Stanislaus County’s Positivity Rate (7‐day average) of 4.9 percent and Health Equity Quartile Positivity Rate of 4.7 percent have both fallen below 5 percent, the County currently qualifies for the next “Red” tier. In order to advance to the red tier, Stanislaus County will need to improve or maintain both these rates for one more week, while also improving or maintaining its adjusted case rate. If this is accomplished, the California Department of Public Health will place Stanislaus County into the red tier on Tuesday, March 23. The red tier allows for more business operations to reopen, such as restaurants and gyms opening indoors with modifications, and allows schools (grades 7‐12) to welcome back their students.
Over the last year there has been an increase in the amount of people that have needed food assistance. Second Harvest of the Greater Valley, formerly known as Second Harvest Food Bank of San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties, has not only had to change some of their distribution methods to serve the community but they also had a recent name change. “For the last year prior to the pandemic we were distributing around 230,000 pounds of food per week,” stated CEO Keenon Krick. “We are averaging now just under 400,000 pounds of food per week that we are distributing out in the community.”
Riverbank Unified School District – like many other districts in Stanislaus County – has taken measures to open up classrooms at all school sites for in person instruction. This past Thursday, Mesa Verde Elementary and California Avenue Elementary returned to attending classes five days a week for all grades from TK to fifth grade. Cardozo Middle School welcomed the sixth grade cohorts to the hybrid model of instruction on Monday, March 22 and grades 7 through 12 will begin the hybrid model of learning this Thursday, March 25. “We are very happy to be able to provide in person instruction daily for our students at the elementary and are happy to report that things have gone smoothly so far,” stated District Superintendent Christine Facella. “We do have the added protections of desk shields for every student in the district.”
The Riverbank City Council will be helping to organize a committee in the community to plan how, and when, to celebrate the city’s upcoming centennial, in 2022. “Incorporated in 1922, the City of Riverbank has changed significantly over the past 100 years,” City Manager Sean Scully reported at the recent online council meeting. “It is common for communities to celebrate this type of milestone in a variety of different ways (parades, festivals, community dinners, new monuments etc.),” Scully wrote in his report to council members. “The Council has previously mentioned that, with the centennial approaching next year, discussions should begin in regard to what types of events and recognitions would be appropriate to highlight this milestone.”
The City of Riverbank hosted a groundbreaking event at Crossroads West this past Friday to commemorate the work that has begun. Phase 1 of the project is under way with 91 homes being built, with the majority of them being single story family homes. “This project will add tremendous value to the region,” stated Riverbank Mayor Richard O’Brien. “The housing will cover all affordability in all ranges without visible or quality differences. This total project will convert the Sports Complex into a Regional Sports Complex; schools will cover additional students for the Sylvan School district; a new fire station and almost doubling the commercial/retail space that will ensure the success of the city for the long term.”
The City of Riverbank Parks and Recreation Department will reopen some of their programs beginning on April 12. With the recommendations from the public health department and adhering to safety protocols Sue Fitzpatrick, Director of Parks and Recreation, and staff are prepared for the opening of the Teen Center, Tot Time, swim team, swim lessons, day camps, and park reservations. “We are excited to begin programs again but are going to take it slow to be sure all protocols are followed and we keep the community and our staff safe,” stated Fitzpatrick. “We have a great staff that is ready to get people back outside, active and social again. Our summer staff did great last year keeping numbers down, social distancing and offering some great programs and are confident they can do it again this summer.”
Stanislaus County didn’t move to a less restrictive tier when tier placements were announced this week, but they didn’t move to a more restrictive one, either. With hospitalizations and new coronavirus cases holding steady, Stanislaus maintained its current red tier (substantial) status. As of Tuesday afternoon, April 6, the county had reported a total of 53,140 positive COVID cases since the pandemic began over a year ago. There have been 1,007 deaths in the county due to the virus and 51,552 recovered cases.
There have been many adjustments made this year maneuvering through a pandemic for businesses, families, and people in general and with vaccinations now readily available, things may be slowly getting back to normal. The City of Riverbank has a new Recreation Supervisor, Tony Lemonds, who said he is ready to tackle any challenges on the horizon. The City of Riverbank’s Parks and Recreation Department had a tough year last year with the closure of several programs, playgrounds, events and parks. The tides have turned a bit and with schools reopening and vaccinations being administered, the department has reopened the parks, playgrounds, some programs and has begun plans for the Cheese and Wine festival.
Stanislaus County wants to hear from residents on ideas and solutions to address homelessness in the region. The county has developed a community survey to gather thoughts and ideas. It’s part of the ongoing process of collecting community feedback to identify gaps and formulate priorities for a comprehensive Regional Homeless Strategic Plan. The online survey helps identify needs, concerns, and better, more equitable ways to provide housing and services to unhoused community members. Input is important and will help develop shared goals and strategies to move forward.
On Monday, April 19 Riverbank Unified School District students from grades 6 through 12 began their new four-day a week schedule in the classrooms. They will continue distance learning for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District (SCFPD) has a new interim Fire Chief, Eric Holly, after Fire Chief Mike Whorton retired earlier this month. Holly came out of retirement to assist the district and began his post on April 9. The appointment will continue for the next six months or until the Fire Chief position is filled permanently.
Cities were celebrated throughout the area in different ways this past Saturday, April 24 and Love Riverbank was revived once again by Riverbank City Councilmember Rachel Hernandez. With an effort to bring it back despite the challenges of the pandemic, Hernandez made it a priority to do something positive for the community. “I feel people appreciated my effort to bring back Love Riverbank this year,” said Hernandez.
The regular traditions and activities that are usually held for seniors and for students have been virtually non-existent for the 2020-2021 school year. Riverbank High School (RHS) is attempting to do what they can to bring some type of normalcy to the students during the last few weeks of school. Leadership Advisor Raymond Perez along with leadership students organized some recent festivities including spirit week, a rally and selection of royalty, bringing some fun and excitement to an otherwise mundane school year. The senior class made a grand entrance, ripping through a senior class sign to kick off the event at Angelo Novi Field on Friday, April 30.
The Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) announced the 2020-21 Teachers of the Year last week. There are four local educators that have been selected including Riverbank High School (RHS) Teacher Ismael Mercado for the high school division. The four teachers will represent Stanislaus County in the State Teacher of the Year (TOY) program and then one state winner will proceed to the national level.
Taking a proactive approach, Riverbank Police Services Chief Ed Ridenour hosted a community meeting or a “Chat with the Chief” during the afternoon of May 12 to discuss illegal bike activity, bike safety, rules of the road and community concerns. There was a mix of adults and youngsters in attendance along with the Chief and Deputies, with officials reporting they felt all those attending had a harmonious and informative conversation. “I think we had a great turnout,” said Ridenour. “We had several kids attend that have been involved in some of these dangerous activities. I was very happy to see that they showed up with their parents and we worked collectively to find solutions and alternate options for the kids to practice their wheelies. This was also a great opportunity to explain bicycle safety, vehicle related laws, and how they can have fun on their bikes in a safe way. I believe it was fruitful and positive interaction with all parties that attended.”
Members of the Riverbank City Council voted to fund repairs, painting and restoration of the exterior of the Riverbank Historical Museum, in advance of the centennial celebration of the construction of what was originally a Carnegie Library. The museum is at 3237 Santa Fe St., downtown.
A weekly evening of shopping, tasting and entertainment has returned to downtown Riverbank. The Farmers Market is back, this time on Santa Fe Street, between Third and Fourth streets. Organizers from downtown businesses banded together to return the event to the neighborhood of its origin. The first version of the market began in 2003, the idea of then City Clerk Linda Abid-Cummings. It was held on Santa Fe, from the intersection at Third, westward to Fourth Street. American Veterans First (AVF) hosted Medal of Honor recipient Command Sergeant Major Robert M. Patterson at a Love America, a salute to patriotism event held this past Friday in Riverbank. The May 21 gathering paid tribute to veterans and active military in all the armed forces. “I thought it was excellent,” stated AVF CEO Duke Cooper about the event. “It went very smooth. Sergeant Major is a great speaker. He engaged the audience from the start to the finish. It was very well done.”
Once again, the City of Riverbank hosted a virtual version of its Memorial Day Celebration on Monday, May 31. It took place at the Community Center. Hosted by Mayor Richard D. O’Brien, the ceremony was streamed to the public both on Facebook and on Instagram, so attendance was limited by continuing COVID concerns. It was the second year event attendance was restricted.
Finals are finally over and the Riverbank Unified School District celebrated the end of the school year last week, hosting four graduation ceremonies in two days. Wednesday, May 26, saw commencements of Adelante High School students, those at Riverbank Language Academy, as well as Cardozo Middle School. Thursday, May 27, parents crowded into the grandstand at Angelo Novi Field for the Riverbank High graduation. Social distancing protocols were still observed.
Stanislaus County has met the requirements to move into the ‘Orange Tier’ of the State’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. The California Department of Public Health announced on Tuesday that effective June 9, the county will be in the ‘Orange.’ This tier allows many activities to resume, according to the State’s expanded capacity limits and safety protocols, including: Indoor dining at maximum 50 percent capacity or 200 people maximum; Retail stores open with modifications (no capacity limit); Wineries and Breweries to open at 25 percent capacity or 100 people indoor maximum.
The Bruin boys basketball team kept the packed gym crowd focused on the tense outcome of its game against visiting Hughson last Friday night in the Fauria Gym. The disappointing finish, however, was not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of what was to follow the contest. The large crowd was there to see basketball, granted, but also, it was there, more importantly, to help Head Coach Jeff Jennings celebrate his departure into retirement from the court. And much of the crowd was made up of former players from his 20-plus year career on Riverbank’s hardwood. Also in attendance were many friends, family, school board members and staff, including current RUSD Superintendent Christine Facella, as well as former Superintendent Dr. Daryl Camp.
Riverbank Police Services (RPS) hosted its Junior Police Academy last week where youngsters in the area got a first-hand look at what law enforcement does. There were about eight participants in the academy that was filled with information, activities and unique hands on experience. “The Junior Police Academy is super important,” said RPS Chief Ed Ridenour. “I feel that (it’s important) engaging with our youth so they can get an idea of what law enforcement does and build a rapport with them and relationships.” This week long course is available to kids in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The academy is held once a year and the chief hopes to expand the program to involve more kids. There are other programs and internships offered through the Sheriff’s Department like the Explorer Program for teens between the ages of 16 to 18.
The Fourth of July is right around the corner and throughout our communities there will be festivities celebrating American independence. The celebrations this weekend may include parades, concerts, barbecues, and fireworks. Firework booths in the area are open for business now through July 6. Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District (SCFPD) Interim Fire Chief Eric Holly explained that each booth is inspected prior to opening to ensure that they are selling State Fire Marshal approved fireworks and have preventative safety measures in place. The sales of ‘Safe and Sane’ fireworks are fundraisers for many organizations.
Next week, a look at the top stories from the second half of the year, July through December.