In 2020 and 2021, if you were to make a list of the biggest Tampa Bay and Florida stories of the year, COVID-19 would be all over it: Cancellations and postponements, unemployment and relief aid, the unimaginable toll of life and death.
In 2022? The virus barely registers.
That’s not to say the pandemic is over — variants like Delta and Omicron have kept the health-conscious on their toes, and COVID-19′s economic impacts will be felt for years to come.
But in Florida — as much as in any other state — life has moved on. The state has already grown in myriad ways this decade, evolving into the nation’s preeminent hotbed of presidential politics, and a destination in which the whole world seemingly wants a stake — if they can afford it.
Look no further than the Tallahassee governor’s mansion. When the calendar flipped to 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis hadn’t been in office 12 months. Of our list of the region’s 20 biggest news stories of 2022, DeSantis arguably had a direct hand in more than half.
In whittling down a top 20, Times editors considered dozens of stories from the worlds of politics, education, crime, medicine, sports and more. Florida may have changed, but one fact about the state hasn’t: It’s still a world-class dynamo of headline news.
Our list is so big, we’re splitting it in half. Today we’re sharing Nos. 20 through 11. We’ll present the top 10 next week. We also asked readers to rank their top 20 of 2022, and we’ll present those next week, too.
Spoiler alert: DeSantis is all over both lists — and, yes, COVID-19 still pops up here and there. But we’ve also included a few big stories you might have forgotten. Let’s start the countdown.
20. Masks dropped as pandemic persists
Whether to mandate the wearing of masks proved to be one of the most divisive aspects of the nation’s pandemic response. Face coverings were mandatory in settings like schools, government buildings and hospitals, and recommended by health officials and doctors as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19.
For some, however, they became a symbol of government overreach and an invasion of individual freedom.
As large swaths of the population built up immunity from vaccines or previous infections, 2022 was the year that face coverings became the exception, not the norm. In February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new recommendations saying that people need not mask up in areas where transmission rates are low. Tampa Bay hospitals and clinics, responding to a CDC recommendation in October, relaxed rules requiring masks for employees and visitors.
Doctors still say, however, that families should consider the use of masks to help prevent the triple threat of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which emerged in late fall.
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— Christopher O’Donnell
19. Clearwater startup strikes $4.6 billion deal
Business leaders and economic development types have been hyping the region’s burgeoning tech landscape for some time. But it wasn’t just hype when Clearwater cybersecurity training company KnowBe4 struck a record-breaking $4.6 billion all-cash sale to a private equity firm in Texas.
KnowBe4 wasn’t the first Tampa Bay startup to earn a $1 billion “unicorn” valuation, but this deal was different in many ways. The company was founded relatively recently, in 2010, and only last year launched an initial public offering. The purchase price was more than those paid in recent years for longer-established, more traditional Tampa Bay companies, such as New Port Richey’s Welbilt, Inc. ($3.5 billion) and Tampa’s Sykes Enterprises ($2.2 billion).
Beyond the bottom line, KnowBe4 has something of a new-school Silicon Valley feel, regularly ranking high on local and national “top workplaces” surveys. When the sale closes in early 2023, it will cement its place in the upper echelon of Tampa Bay tech companies, becoming a lodestar other local startups look to as they seek outside investors and plan their futures.
— Jay Cridlin
18. Rev. Watson Haynes leaves a legacy
The Rev. Watson Haynes was a civil rights leader who dedicated his life to combating generational poverty and empowering young people — and inspired others to do the same. He died in August while serving as the longtime president of the Pinellas County Urban League. He was 69.
Haynes was born and raised in St. Petersburg. He became a senior class president at St. Petersburg High School and graduate of St. Petersburg Junior College and Eckerd College. He served as a minister and appointed member of the Florida Commission on Human Relations before he was named to lead the Urban League in 2012. Former Mayor Rick Kriseman last year awarded Haynes with a key to the city, St. Petersburg’s highest civilian honor.
In his last few years, Haynes was involved in the redevelopment of Tropicana Field by providing guidance to a developer on how to best honor the Gas Plant community, where he was raised. The neighborhood was home to a thriving Black community before it was razed to build the dome.
Local and statewide leaders remembered Haynes as a counselor, advisor, peacemaker and bridge builder who left a lasting legacy in St. Petersburg.
— Colleen Wright
17. University of Florida gets a new leader
The University of Florida emerged from a months-long national search for a new president with a stunning pick, announcing U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, as its sole finalist.
The decision came after a year of growing concerns over political meddling and academic freedom at UF, culminating in a federal lawsuit, internal investigations and an inquiry by the university’s accreditors.
While the 50-year-old Sasse considers himself a moderate and has criticized former President Donald Trump, he drew fierce resistance in Gainesville over his stance against same-sex marriage, his lack of large-university experience and a UF selection process that was largely conducted in secret. UF’s board of trustees pointed to his proposed innovations and his pledge to embrace all people, including those in the LGBTQ community.
Sasse begins in February with a five-year contract that initially will pay him between $1 million and $1.35 million.
— Divya Kumar
16. MLB dashes Rays’ Montreal plan
It had taken more than two years for Rays officials to convince people in Tampa Bay that they were serious — and optimistic — about a radical plan to share the ballclub with Montreal.
And, just as plans started to come together for a boutique stadium in Ybor City, Major League Baseball owners pulled the rug out from under the Rays.
MLB’s executive council, which had initially given owner Stuart Sternberg permission to explore the idea, decided in a Jan. 18 meeting that it would not give its blessing for the so-called sister city plan.
Sternberg was stunned by MLB’s decision, and the league offered almost no explanation.
The plan had been to take advantage of nicer weather in Tampa Bay in the spring and early summer, and then move the club to Montreal for the second half of the season. By avoiding the early-season cold in Montreal and the late-summer heat and rain in Tampa Bay, the Rays said both markets could build smaller, less expensive stadiums without a roof.
— John Romano
15. Florida’s confusing voter fraud crackdown
DeSantis’ Aug. 18 news conference made instant national headlines: His newly created election police force was arresting 20 people for alleged voter fraud.
Each person had prior felony convictions for sex offenses or murder, which made them ineligible to vote. Yet they registered to vote and cast a ballot in 2020 anyway, he said.
”That is against the law, and now they’re going to pay the price for it,” DeSantis said.
Since then, questions have been raised about why DeSantis’ Department of State allowed them on the rolls in the first place. One person who was arrested still was on the rolls months after her arrest, and another was issued a new voter ID card.
State law says the 20 had to willfully commit the crime. Police body cameras revealed that several of those charged were confused about why they were being arrested.
So far, Miami judges have tossed out the arrests of two people (statewide prosecutors are appealing). Prosecutors dropped charges in another case, and a Tampa woman took a plea deal in which she faces no punishment.
— Lawrence Mower
14. DeSantis takes on Disney
One of this year’s most unexpected political stories was a battle of the heavyweights: a nationally prominent Republican governor versus Disney, one of the world’s most recognizable companies and a hugely powerful special interest in Florida.
DeSantis, saying the era of Disney special privileges was over, successfully pushed the Legislature to pass a law stripping the Walt Disney Co. of its special taxing district. He also had lawmakers remove a special carveout for the company in a separate law related to social media companies. (Documents show that DeSantis’ own staff wrote that carveout for Disney.)
It was all sparked by the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill by critics, which Disney said it would work to repeal. The new law prohibits classroom instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through the third grade, and potentially restricts such instruction for older kids. But how much will lawmakers’ actions stick? While DeSantis benefited from the Disney fight with campaign dollars and airtime, the bill to repeal the special taxing district left big unanswered questions and loose ends. Legislators are in compromise talks to decide what happens next.
— Emily L. Mahoney
13. Florida tops 83,000 deaths from COVID-19
Florida topped 83,000 coronavirus deaths in 2022.
As of early December, the state had recorded 83,195 virus fatalities since the pandemic began, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 33% increase since Jan. 5, when Florida had reported 62,470 deaths, federal data show.
Florida has seen more than 7.2 million COVID-19 infections total, federal health officials said Dec. 7.
That’s up by 3 million cases since the beginning of 2022.
Florida residents 65 and up have accounted for 15% of cases statewide but more than three quarters of deaths all told, according to a Dec. 2 report from the Florida Department of Health.
Fewer than 24% of Florida seniors have gotten an updated COVID-19 booster, according to Dec. 7 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s one of the lowest rates in the country.
— Sam Ogozalek
12. DeSantis pushes ‘parental rights’ in schools
DeSantis and his allies in the Legislature spent much of the year at war against an education establishment they said was out of control and bent on indoctrinating students.
His education department rejected 54 textbooks on the premise they included “critical race theory,” a concept known as CRT, and “social-emotional learning,” a widely used practice that teaches skills like creative problem-solving, understanding emotions and showing empathy. Of more than 70 people who reviewed the books, a handful recruited from conservative groups equated mentions of race with CRT, which is a college-level area of study of systematic racism in America.
The governor also signed bills that limit discussions of race and gender in classrooms; make it easier to restrict books in school libraries; and tighten rules on tenure for university faculty.
The push inspired a new generation of conservative parents to protest against references in sex education lessons and book passages that they found too explicit. And for the first time in memory, a Florida governor endorsed candidates for local school board races, favoring those who signed on to his “parental rights” and “anti-woke” agenda.
While many welcomed the changes, scores of other parents, students and educators made it clear the governor’s education priorities don’t match theirs. The new provisions sparked fierce debates in the Legislature, as well as lawsuits.
Advocates pushed back against restrictions on discussing gender issues in classrooms, saying they diminished the humanity of LGBTQ individuals. And faculty and students attacked DeSantis’ “Stop WOKE Act,” saying its vaguely worded restrictions on classroom discussions of race erode academic freedom and clearly violate the First Amendment. A federal judge in November halted enforcement of the law, calling it “positively dystopian.”
— Thomas C. Tobin
11. Florida flies Texas migrants to Martha’s Vineyard
The surprise evening announcement quickly spread through Florida and beyond: DeSantis had taken credit for sending two planes filled with migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Most, if not all, of the nearly 50 undocumented migrants were from Venezuela. DeSantis applauded the flights as part of the state’s “innovative ways to protect Florida.”
But the migrants, including some children, who were taken to the liberal-leaning Martha’s Vineyard weren’t from Florida. Rather, they were picked up in San Antonio, Texas.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit, some of the migrants said they were tricked into getting onto the plane. Some said they were promised jobs and assistance, but instead were thrown into a small community that wasn’t prepared for them. No one in Martha’s Vineyard was given advance notice to prepare food or shelter.
The Legislature’s budget included $12 million for “the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law,” but a state lawmaker has sued DeSantis, claiming that because the migrants were not from Florida, it was a misuse of taxpayer dollars.
The administration has so far spent about $1.5 million on the flights. That money was paid to a company tied to a top DeSantis adviser.
— Romy Ellenbogen
Coming next week: Tom Brady, Hurricane Ian and much more DeSantis.