On March 13, the nation was just beginning to realize the danger and rapid spread of the coronavirus, but “Les Misérables” was still scheduled to play that night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That made Mayor Steve Schewel uneasy.
In New York, Broadway was shut down. The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And Schewel had just learned of Durham’s first COVID-19 case.
The show couldn’t go on in Durham, he thought.
So Schewel called DPAC’s leaders and asked about their plan. They said the 2,712-seat venue couldn’t close without a government order, which would allow it to get out of contracts without paying damages, according to Schewel. He called people in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, but they weren’t ready to make that call.
DPAC leaders wanted to stay open for a couple more shows, Schewel said. But he felt they had to shut down.
Without consulting the City Council, Schewel declared a state of emergency that banned large gatherings effective at 5 p.m. that day, effectively turning off the lights at DPAC.
“That was the big moment where it all became clear where my role had to change,” Schewel said last week.
In ordinary times, Durham’s mayor has more ceremonial than actual power. The mayor runs council meetings and makes committee appointments, but in many ways, the city manager actually wields more power.
Yet Schewel’s declaration of emergency, which is allowed under the city’s Code of Ordinances, gave him powers that put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system. Using that authority, plus a keen understanding of county and state politics and a mastery of the media (he is the former publisher of Indy Week), Schewel has taken a firm grip on Durham’s COVID-19 response, issuing an aggressive stay-at-home order and mandating masks before any other North Carolina locality.
“He’s been out front. He’s in the news,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham. “I live in Chapel Hill and I barely know who the mayor is. That’s not true in Durham.”
Unmasking Schewel’s face-covering, other COVID-19 policies
Schewel’s newfound muscle can be seen in his bold actions to mandate mask-wearing in public.
After issuing a stay-at-home order for the city March 25, Schewel worked with the county to update the order, the second time requiring Durham residents to wear masks in places such as grocery stores when it’s not possible to have a social distance.
Working with Wendy Jacobs, chair of the County Board of Commissioners, Schewel’s mask mandate came more than two months before the governor issued a statewide order. Even Mecklenberg County, home to the state’s virus epicenter, Charlotte, waited for the state to require mask-wearing.
In a reversal from its previous position, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended Americans wear masks in early April, but few jurisdictions required face coverings when Schewel enacted his requirement.
Since April, the evidence has mounted in that mask mandates make a significant impact in slowing the virus’ spread. A June 1 analysis of 172 studies found face mask use could cause a major reduction in the risk of infection. Most Durhamites wear masks and socially distance properly, Schewel said.
“I think that was a good call. Everyone’s doing it, even the vice president of the United States,” Schewel said (before Trump wore a mask in public for the first time last week).
Schewel has filled a leadership vacuum not just locally but also at the national level, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton said.
“We’re seeing the numbers now go in the wrong direction in many states around the country because of a dearth of national leadership, so many state and local leaders have been left to fend for ourselves in many cases,” Middleton said. “It has placed leaders like Steve Schewel front and center to save our own lives at the municipal level.”
To be fair, Schewel hasn’t done all of this on his own. He has worked closely with Jacobs and has often consulted the City Council and health experts, City Council Member Charlie Reece said. Earlier in the pandemic, Reece said Schewel would talk with him and other Council members every few days. Middleton said Schewel kept the Council well-informed on his decisions with regards to his emergency powers.
Still, Schewel has been the face of the city.
“Mayor Schewel has also been especially good at making difficult decisions in a clear and direct manner,” Reece said. “He has done a great job with the impossible task of weighing the various needs and interests of all the people of our city, and of charting a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that offers our community the best chance of emerging on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis in the best possible shape.”
How Schewel got Durham on board with his COVID mandates
Schewel, a public policy professor at Duke, has been very strategic in explaining his bold policies.
When he announced the mask mandate, he got videos from Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton that showed them wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same. He knew the coaches were popular role models in the Bull City.
“If this is going to work, voluntary compliance is what’s going to make it work,” Schewel said. “We need to explain to people why it’s important, for them to believe it, and then for them to do it.”
With his messaging on masks, Schewel struck a good balance between personal freedom and people’s responsibility to protect each other, Middleton said.
“We didn’t turn Durham into a police state making sure people were indoors or social distancing,” Middleton said. “He appealed to our sense of community not just for ourselves but to each other and for one another. We didn’t have to do it with the force of fine or imprisonment and people just complied.”
His actions haven’t been universally popular. Schewel recently got an unsigned letter at his home written in purple marker calling him a “sanctimonious little dictator.”
“They hurt my feelings when they said I was little!” Schewel quipped.
Schewel’s stay-at-home order also caught the attention of Liz Wheeler, a host on the conservative One America News Network.
“Now, the lockdown is indefinite. This happens if you give politicians power. They abuse it,” Wheeler tweeted.
Schewel says he hears a lot of opinions from across the spectrum.
“There has been lots of criticism,” Schewel said. “But also I feel a lot of support. Most people in Durham understand the importance of social distancing, face coverings and the actions we’ve taken when we needed to shut down businesses in Durham.”
Middleton is among his supporters.
“We were fortunate to have a leader whose temperament was led by science and compassion to be making decisions during this time,” Middleton said. “I give him very high marks in what was an impossible situation, where there’s no pamphlet or textbook on how to handle these things.”
Lessons of history
The few modern mayors that have brought strength to Durham’s mayor system have shared several key traits, according to Korstad, the Duke professor who has studied the city’s history.
One of those traits is charisma and strong networks, shared by Schewel and three others.
The first was Emanuel Evans, a Democrat who served from 1951 to 1963. The first Jewish mayor of Durham, Evans was able to bring together Black and white labor unions and the white business elite towards desegregation, unlike many other Southern mayors, Korstad said.
His successor, Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971, also used his strong personality and community ties in support of the Civil Rights movement, Korstad said.
After Grabarek left office, Durham didn’t see a mayor last in office more than four years until Schewel’s predecessor, Bill Bell, took office in 2001. He brought deep ties to Durham after serving on the school board and had been Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Bell had more of a political presence than his predecessors, Korstad said, allowing him to strength ties with Duke, build coalitions and tackle issues like poverty and inequality.
Schewel follows in the mold of a “strong” Durham mayor in part due to his charisma and deep ties in Durham, but has also brought policy chops to the table.
A faculty member at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and formerly a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, Schewel brings a deeper level of engagement to policy issues than even Bell, Korstad said, and could handle the city manager role easily.
The Duke alumnus also has another advantage that Bell didn’t always have: a supportive City Council and a strong ally in Jacobs, Korstad said.
“He’s got a lot of capital. Folks know that he’s invested,” Middleton said. “Even if you disagree with him on policy, there’s no question as to his love for the city. When you’ve built up that reservoir of capital, it’s time like these you can draw on it.”
At top, photo of Steve Schewel by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal