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A pandemic year

Mark Cunningham and Bethany Faulkner, working with the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative, wait for people to pick up meals Tuesday. While a Riverside High School senior, Elijah King partnered with businesses to launch the program last spring. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A year ago today, March 10, Gov. Roy Cooper rolled out North Carolina’s first emergency order addressing the coronavirus pandemic. No one envisioned all that has followed.

In Durham County, at least 210 people have died from COVID-19, with lopsided losses of life among Black residents. Twenty percent of people who have died here were exposed in group settings, including nursing homes and, in one case, the county jail.

Schools shuttered in March, with no teaching offered until summer ended. After months of online classes, only now is the school district preparing to welcome students back in person.

Thousands of people watched jobs, health insurance, savings and social contact evaporate. People deemed essential workers, Latinx and Black residents especially, faced higher exposure risks. Local businesses and annual events we once took for granted went missing.

With so much of value subtracted from this community, Durham residents found ways to build new things we never expected to need.

To mark this difficult anniversary, 9th Street Journal reporters circled back to people we talked with early in the pandemic. We asked about what concerned them then, and how things are looking now.

Elijah King, founder of Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative

At the start: Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic (April 26, 2020)

Elijah King says the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative has distributed nearly 50,000 meals.

Last spring, Riverside High School senior Elijah King partnered with local businesses to create the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative outside Geer Street Garden every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They distributed about 200 meals each day. With donations, the initiative was able to pay its volunteers, who had lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages,” King said then. “That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making.” 

Now: Still going strong, the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative has served almost 50,000 meals during the pandemic year. King graduated from high school and is now a political science major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but he’s still deeply involved in Durham.

“I had several people cry and tell me their experiences and how much Durham Neighbors has helped them, and how much I’ve impacted their lives personally,” King said after a recent visit. “It was a very impactful experience.”

He continues working with the meals program and co-founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative, which hosts public conversations with climate experts and advocates for environmental justice. He also works with the N.C. Democratic Party in Raleigh. 

“Food insecurity was a problem before the pandemic, is a problem during the pandemic, and will be a problem way after the pandemic,” King said. “Durham Neighbors isn’t just a way to serve free lunch, it is a way to become advocates, to convey stories, to make sure that the powers that be know that this is an important issue.” 

Kathleen Hobson

Katie Galbraith, Duke Regional Hospital president

At the start: Duke Health shares some details on COVID-19 preparations (March 29, 2020)

Katie Galbraith says Duke Health has learned what community resilience means. Photo courtesy of Duke University

Durham County had seen just over 100 cases of COVID when Duke Regional Hospital President Katie Galbraith shared pandemic response plans with The 9th Street Journal last March. 

“This is something that we have been preparing for and planning for — for this type of event — for years,” she said.

Galbraith said Duke Health stood ready to add 500 beds in case Durham became the next New York. N95 masks couldn’t be found anywhere, so hospital staff had just figured out how to decontaminate masks so they could be reworn, she reported. Galbraith called on locked-down Durhamites to stay home and praised Duke’s new in-house COVID test. 

Now: Even as she prepared for an array of potential doomsdays, Galbraith — like all of us — couldn’t see all that was coming. 

“I just didn’t realize the scope or breadth, or tremendous impact that this pandemic would have” Galbraith recalled. 

Mask shortages continue, so the hospital’s decontamination and reuse efforts do, too, Galbraith said. Quick in-house testing also endures, now alongside a more accessible, widespread local testing network. 

Fortunately, other plans remained only plans.. “We never had to significantly increase the number of beds that we were using,” Galbraith said, crediting COVID-conscious Durhamites and selfless hospital staff. 

“I’ve learned what resilience means,” she said. “I’ve seen so many who have sacrificed so much through the last year, to make sure that we’re taking care of each other and taking care of this community.”

Simultaneously the most rewarding and difficult part of her professional life, leading the hospital’s pandemic response has worn on Galbraith. 

“It is definitely a weight. And I feel it,” she said. Her coworkers inspire her, keep her going, she added. “But it is a lot of responsibility.” 

That responsibility isn’t going anywhere. Even as Galbraith sees joyful faces at vaccination sites and steadily declining numbers, she knows the pandemic is not over. Seven patients remained in critical condition at Duke Regional on Monday.

“We’re still not out of the woods,” Galbraith said.

Jake Sheridan

Eliazar Posada, acting president and CEO of El Centro Hispano

At the start:
COVID hits black, Latinx Durham residents hardest (June 2, 2020)

Eliazar Posada and El Centro Hispano are working to dispel misconceptions about the coronavirus vaccine. Photo courtesy of Posada

Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of the Latinx community organization El Centro Hispano, told 9th Street in June that the pandemic had worsened financial and health care problems already heavily affecting Durham’s Latinx population.

County data from May revealed that at 14% of Durham’s population, Latinx people faced 34% of its cases, including over 90% of cases associated with outdoor construction sites. El Centro Hispano began distributing money to help cover food, rent, and utilities for over 600 families, said Rocha-Goldberg.

Now:  The $350,000 in direct aid that El Centro Hispano raised from donations has run out, said acting president Eliazar Posada. The organization now partners with local groups to pass out meals each week. 

Ensuring that the Latinx community gets equitable access to vaccinations is a major goal for the organization.

Language is a barrier to finding and getting vaccinations for older and Spanish-speaking residents who are less confident with online appointments and prefer telephoning for help, Posada explained. El Centro Hispano is advocating for bilingual staff on the county’s COVID-19 hotline, he said.

“The ideal situation would be for someone to answer and help immediately,” said Posada. “We know there are limited vaccines, so if I’m waiting for help, they might run out.”

Trust remains a critical issue for residents who are uneasy about disclosing their immigration status. “A lot of our community members still do not trust the government or university health systems,” said Posada. “Centro and other NGOs really stepped in to be an arbiter of trust.”

Centro is running a public information campaign to dispel misconceptions in the Latinx community about vaccine eligibility and requirements. With its three Triangle offices closed, Centro has pivoted to hosting social groups, cooking classes, award ceremonies and house parties — all online. 

“It’s not always about big festivals or dances,” Posada said. “It’s about folks connecting with people and not feeling too alone.”

Charlie Zong

Peter Gilbert, Legal Aid lawyer 

At the start: Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham (March 24, 2020)

A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

Last March, a state Supreme Court order halted nonessential court proceedings, freezing eviction proceedings and padlockings of rental properties. 

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” Legal Aid lawyer Peter Gilbert said then. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

But as the law kept people in their homes, Gilbert worried Durham would suffer a “tsunami of evictions” once COVID-wrought protections for renters expired. That sinister wave still looms. 

Now: “I’ve been trying to just get through day by day this whole year,” Gilbert said last week. “We’ve had many more people reaching out for our help, especially over the last few months. We’re doing our best to keep up.” 

The lawyer said overlapping state and federal government interventions stopped most evictions from March to July. When those protections expired, however, evictions filled the courts until the Centers for Disease Control imposed its own eviction moratorium, he said. 

Gilbert said the CDC’s order is set to expire at the end of March. Durham’s courts are scheduled to resume hearings for evictions on non-payment in May. 

Even with those protections, some tenants describe being forced out, “The tenants are using words like they’re being harassed, landlords are contacting them every single day, saying ‘Where’s my rent?’ and ‘You have to be out by Friday.’” 

If deadlines aren’t extended, the tsunami will hit when protections end. Gilbert estimated 20,000 of Durham’s 120,000 households will be unable to pay rent and could face eviction. That many people losing housing would reshape the city, he predicts.

“This is going to exacerbate gentrification. This is going to exacerbate the push out of poor, especially African-American families who have been the core of the citizenry of Durham for much of its history,” Gilbert said. 

The city and county plan to make $9 million available for local rental assistance. But Gilbert estimated that Durham needs $40 million to $60 million to avoid a major local housing crisis. 

Jake Sheridan

Jodee Nimerichter, American Dance Festival executive director 

At the start: Coronavirus outbreak cancels American Dance Festival 2020 (March 31, 2020)

In October, dancers performed on lawns and driveways in American Dance Festival’s Creative Healing Parade. Photo by Laura Charles

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Durham’s American Dance Festival canceled its six-week summer program of modern dance performances for the first time since its founding in 1934. 

“It’s hard to swallow, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Jodee Nimerichter, the ADF executive director. As COVID-19 cases increased, the future of ADF was uncertain: Where would funding come from? How would ADF adjust? Could live performances resume in 2021? 

Now: “It’s great to continue to know that, even in the midst of COVID, partnerships and creativity have never stopped,” Nimerichter said, reflecting on the past year. ADF is powering through the pandemic with online educational programs creating platforms for virtual viewing and commissioning local and international artists.   

“Coronavirus has been devastating to the arts because all the major venues have shut down,” Niemerichter said, noting that artists were lacking outlets for their creativity. 

Last October, ADF held the Creative Healing Parade, bringing more than 70 artists together to dance in driveways and on lawns while audiences watched from cars. In January, ADF commissioned “Untold Secrets of the Heart Chamber,” an online collaboration between South African choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

“Even if the audiences are not nearly as wide as I’d want them to be, it’s still important for artists to be creative, and for us to find resources to pay them,” Nimerichter said, thanking supporters for “the amazing generosity that has been displayed this past year.”

There’s more good news: ADF is hoping to resume live performances this year, by pushing the annual festival starting date to September — two months after the festival usually begins. 

“The bottom line is some of these blessings we’ve learned might not ever go away,” Nimerichter said, adding, “We just can’t wait to get back together in person.”

Eleanor Ross

Wendy Jacobs, county commissioners vice chair

At the start: County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies (March 28, 2020)

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs
County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures last spring. Facebook video grab by 9th Street Journal

Wendy Jacobs was at the forefront of drafting orders to protect Durham residents during the rise of the pandemic. Then chair of the Durham County commissioners, she helped launch a city-county face mask mandate and stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers. 

“You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” Jacobs said last March. 

Now: “There was no playbook for a pandemic, but I feel very good about the tough decisions that we made,” Jacobs, now the commissioners’ vice chair, said last week.

It is still crucial that Durham residents continue to take precautions such as wearing masks and interact at a distance, she said. Jacobs and other county commissioners are continuing to work on ways to enforce these practices even with several hundred vaccines rolling out each day. 

“These are the keys to preventing the spread of these new variants and getting people back to work, getting everyone back to school, and getting back to a normal functioning society,” she said.

With Durham Public Schools preparing to begin reopening next week, Jacobs said community members need to think about disparities that still need to be addressed. Between the affordable housing crisis and a steep decline in tourism impacting the hospitality industry, much remains to be addressed in the context of COVID-19. 

Clara Love

Kym Register, Pinhook bar owner

At the start: With concert cancellations, Durham venues livestream local artists (March 20, 2020) 

The pandemic was immediately difficult for businesses like Pinhook, a downtown bar that survived on its ability to bring people together to enjoy art. Owner Kym Register had to lay off the entire staff so they could claim unemployment benefits when the pandemic began. Register’s band, Lomlands, lost thousands of dollars because of gig cancellations. 

Like many downtown business, Pinhook was adorned with art that Black artists created last summer during racial justice protests summer after George Floyd was killed in police custody. Photo by Henry Haggart

Now: Register used Patreon to set up monthly subscriptions for patrons. They have been a huge help with making the rent each month, Register said. Since last March, Register has developed  digital Pinhook experiences, from Zoom karaoke to online courses taught by artists. That includes “Drag Makeup 101” and “the intersection of music, mutual aid, and protest movements.” To access the online programming, patrons are required to make donations, as little as one dollar, to Pinhook via Patreon. 

Gov. Cooper eased restrictions on bars on Feb. 24, but Register, who uses the pronoun “they,” decided it was still too soon to reopen. “Waiting just a little longer will be better for everyone,” they said.

Pinhook won’t open until they have figured out all of the logistics around COVID safety, Register said.

For now, Register is closely watching the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a trade association group lobbying the Small Business Administration for relief funding for venue spaces such as Pinhook. Hopefully, grant funding from NIVA by early April, combined with Patreon funds and the $10,000 loan received from the city of Durham last year will enable Pinhook to stay afloat while a reopening plan is cemented.

As for the band Lomlands, it has been a uniquely uninspiring year. Register initially felt guilty for not having a “transformative,” creative experience during lockdown. 

“This time period has been non-motivating,” Register said, adding that we need to “give everyone a break… We are all just trying to survive.”

Olivia Olsher

Daniel Meier, defense attorney

At the start: Jail worker died of COVID-19, but Sheriff’s Office won’t discuss (April 29, 2020)

Daniel Meier says county jail officials have implemented good safety measures. Photo courtesy of Meier

Defense attorney Daniel Meier regularly visited the Durham County Detention Facility last spring to meet with clients. He was worried when the Sheriff’s Office revealed that six jail employees had tested positive for COVID-19, without providing details about whether jail inmates and other employees might have been exposed.

“It’s a huge frustration there is not more transparency,” Meier told The 9th Street Journal then. “I get the reluctance to name specific names, but it is important to know as much as we can.”

Now: The Durham County Detention Facility has improved its precautionary measures in the past year, Meier said. He still enters the jail once a week and he is now pleased with the steps taken there to ensure visitors’ and attorneys’ safety. Detainees who may have been exposed to the virus are isolated, he said.

“They do their best, so that is what has really changed a lot,” Meier said. “They’re trying to keep the disease out of the jail and trying to keep it from spreading.”

Attorneys can now meet with clients over video when inside the facility, reducing exposure risks. “Back in April, we were still having a lot of the inmates sitting next to us, and there wasn’t widespread testing. They fixed basically any risk of exposure,” he said.
Meier enters the Durham County Courthouse more frequently each week. There, deputies question visitors and take their temperatures to try to decrease the spread of infection. It’s not unusual for Meier to be sitting in a courtroom and receive a call that a client will not be allowed into the building, he said. 

Dryden Quigley

Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, family medicine doctor

At the start: Battling barriers to protect Latinx residents from COVID-19 (July 29, 2020)

When doctors Viviana Martinez-Bianchi and Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti started Latin-19, a coalition of medical professionals addressing the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on the Latinx community, in March 2020, a dozen people were on the team. They had lots of issues to address.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, almost none of the public health messaging was in Spanish. The general guidance about social distancing wasn’t always on-target for Latinx households that included large, multi-generational families.

“Togetherness is usually a big part of the resilience of the community,” Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, a Duke family medicine doctor and adviser to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said in July. “And in this case, it has actually acted against them. Because the virus loves that kind of environment.” 

A patient held an umbrella for Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi while she administered a coronavirus test in July. Martinez-Bianchi co-founded Latin-19 to respond to a high rate of COVID-19 among Durham’s Latinx residents. Photo by Henry Haggart

Now: The Latin-19 coalition has grown to over 600 members. The group has initiated efforts throughout North Carolina to bring adequate COVID-19 healthcare and information to Latinx communities. 

Factors such as fears over data security, immigration status repercussions, lack of Spanish and culturally appropriate messaging, as well as unfairly located testing sites continue to prevent Latinx people from accessing COVID-19 resources, said Martinez-Bianchi. However, she is hopeful that information campaigns via social media, Latinx radio stations, faith leaders and news media allies are encouraging Latinx people to seek out the vaccine. 

According to data made public by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, five in 100 Hispanic people in North Carolina have received their first doses, while more than 17 in 100 non-Hispanic people have received theirs. Latin-19 is closing the gap one step at a time. 

Since the vaccine became available in North Carolina in December, Latin-19 has focused on building trust in the vaccine and overcoming access barriers by hosting vaccine drives in trusted community centres, such as the Latino Community Credit Union. Latin-19 has vaccinated over 1200 Latinx people through partnerships with North Carolina organizations, health departments and faith leaders, said Martinez-Bianchi. 

“Lots of good things have happened since the article,” said Martinez-Bianchi, referring to the 9th Street Journal’s coverage of Latin-19 in July last year

For Latin-19, the work won’t stop when the pandemic is over. 

“Our goal,” Martinez-Bianchi said, “ is to continue to work and create a Latinx center for excellence in Latinx health.”  

Olivia Olsher

Steve Schewel, Durham mayor 

At the start: COVID-19 Q&A: Mayor asks residents to keep distance but help each other (March 20, 2020)

Mayor Schewel while creating a video messages to Durham residents about the need to stay home to stay safe from the new coronavirus. Photo from the City of Durham

One year ago, Mayor Steve Schewel was tasked with bringing the city of Durham together in a time of turmoil. Already reeling from a cyberattack on local government computers, Schewel worked overtime to collaborate with other leaders to address the pandemic’s impact on homeless people, parents and children whose schools were closed, and essential workers who needed childcare. He implored residents to adopt social distancing, wear masks, and hold each other accountable for slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have got to act now, before we look back and regret that we didn’t act soon enough and find out that this virus has ravaged our community. The earlier we act, the more power we have to stop the spread of the virus,” Schewel said.

Now: Schewel grieves for more than 200 lives lost in Durham from COVID-19 over the past year, and he is conscious that “there’s a lot of suffering.” 

“There are businesses that are not going to come back, and people have lost their jobs. It’s going to take a long time to really get the recovery that we need, and we have to really remain supportive of all of our folks who were in those situations,” he said.

Schewel said he is impressed by Durham residents’ ability to care for one another, and by the “remarkable” way that the city’s residents have organized to feed thousands of school children, fight for eviction moratoriums, and provide students with online learning and internet access. 

“We had the first mask mandate placed, two months before the state mandated it – that saved a lot of lives.”

Now, he wants residents to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, if the city can just continue to work hard on equitable vaccine distribution. 

“Our ability to crush this virus is almost within our grasp,” Schewel said. “Vaccines are coming fast and furious now, and we need to make sure that everyone, when their time comes, gets the vaccine. And we need to make sure that our marginalized and vulnerable communities have the vaccines available to them.”

Rebecca Schneid

Martha Hoelzer, freelance photographer and instructor 

At the start: Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community (April 9, 2020)

Martha Hoelzer taught photography classes on Zoom. Photo by Randy Young

Martha Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography, quickly adapted to self-isolation. She began offering photography lessons over Zoom and sought to “reframe the current situation of whatever we’re having to face”—training her students’ composition and perspective skills to combat the monotony of pandemic restrictions.  

Now: The past twelve months pushed Hoelzer to enact her plans—to work on projects that had been brewing in the back of her mind. Hoelzer has spent the last few months developing new workshops and planning the release of her art show.

“If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would not have reached out to see if kids wanted to do photography last year.” she said. 

On New Year’s Day, she began a 30-day mindfulness workshop on Facebook. Hoelzer promoted introspection, self-care, and the accessibility of photography by focusing on a different creative element each day.

While unforeseen triumphs like Hoelzer’s workshops sprouted from COVID, her art also took a hit. 

Hoelzer’s exhibition on traumatic brain injury was supposed to happen last March. “The images literally got hung, and then COVID basically shut down everything that weekend.” 

But twelve months later, Hoelzer’s photography collages will be released to the public. Whether virtual or in small, socially distanced groups — the details are still being worked out — Hoezler is excited to safely present her award-winning art show. 

Eleanor Ross

John Moore, yoga teacher 

At the start: The board: cancellations, uncertainty, and hope on a bulletin board on 9th Street (March 22, 2020)

A poster promoting Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma remained posted on the exterior of a Ninth Street building after the pandemic cancelled live events in Durham. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

Last March John Moore broke the unhappy news to Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma that his weekend visit to Durham was canceled. The lama was stopping by to host classes on the practices of Tibetan Yogas of Body and Mind, sponsored by Moore — a Durham-based yoga practitioner and teacher. Moore held a clement outlook amidst stormy times.

“Although I was certainly disappointed that the workshop had to be canceled,” Moore said then, “it also provides an opportunity to practice contentment and to gracefully accept whatever life offers.” 

Now: As the year passed, Moore clung to that graceful acceptance. Four seasons of loss have brought him “a deeper level of understanding of suffering,” he said. Now he knows, like he could have never known before, “everyone has pain.”

He describes the year as one of “profound change,” Moore lost three loved ones — two died of COVID, and another of pancreatic cancer. As yoga practices halted, Moore hesitated to move classes online, feeling it was an inauthentic translation of his teaching. He moved out of his home, sold his studio, and stopped teaching yoga after 33 years.

Moore’s conscious recognition of life’s inevitable pain has reinforced his goals to help others through these struggles with a continued encouragement of acceptance. 

He has used this understanding to navigate and embrace his year of significant changes. The yogi has a new grandson, Asa and has moved into a new home in Henderson, 40 miles north of Durham. He has started a garden that he hopes will help feed hungry people in his new community. 

He has started with figs and blackberries and will soon add vegetables. “I strive to empower individuals, through yoga or through food,” Moore says, “to nourish them.” 

Carmela Guaglianone