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What you need to know about the city council’s 4-hour meeting on coronavirus

During a four-hour virtual Durham City Council meeting on Monday, Mayor Steve Schewel announced that the city is flattening the growth curve of COVID-19: The daily rate of case increases has fallen from 12% to 8%, he said. 

Representatives from different sectors of the city discussed changes they have implemented to continue flattening that curve.

Social distancing, sanitation and support 

Multiple city officials said they have taken significant steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus while still supporting employees and residents. 

According to Durham City Manager Bo Ferguson, the city has adjusted day-to-day activities to ensure unnecessary services are suspended and employee contact remains at a minimum.

Key services still in operation include water and sewer management, litter clean-up in high use public facilities, emergency street and concrete repair and garbage and recycling pickup. Custodial services are still in place in facilities where employees are working; employees are using enhanced cleaning protocols.

Ferguson recognized the 250 city employees who are not permitted to work even though they need to.

“Some of our heroes are the ones who are sitting at home and helping us not to spread this,” he said.

Many of those who do need to work rely on public transportation. 

GoDurham buses and GoDurham ACCESS have waived fares during the pandemic, according to transportation department director Sean Egan. He said the department’s workforce is receiving a 5% pay increase.

The city reduced the frequency of routes and buses stop running at 9:30 p.m. In order to reduce contact between passengers and drivers, passengers may only board using rear doors. Egan said his team has implemented more rigorous sanitation practices, including pressure washing stations and wiping vehicle interiors down with Lysol.

Drivers are not currently required to wear masks during their shifts, but some city officials expressed interest in seeing them do so. 

“I would like to see our bus drivers wearing masks,” Schewel told Egan. Referencing the CDC’s recent recommendation for people to wear cloth masks in public settings, he added, “I think that is great guidance and I just worry about them so much.” 

During the meeting, some speakers recognized the importance of protecting the city’s low-income and homeless people. 

Durham’s Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates disaster response, has created an interagency task force to work with Durham Public Schools, which is currently providing meals to 5,500 children each day.

Colin Davis, the manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, said that to prevent the virus from spreading in Durham’s homeless shelters, the department is setting up an agreement with local hotels where the medically vulnerable can stay. 

Davis did not shy away from the harsh reality of the homeless community’s vulnerability. “There will be probably people who will remain unsheltered during this process,” he said.

How police are enforcing stay-at-home orders

The Durham Police Department has changed its protocols to protect officers and the public, said police chief Cerelyn Davis. Many calls about minor crimes are handled by phone rather than in person, and inquiries about COVID-19 are redirected to Durham One Call, the city’s information hotline, to avoid 911 interruption.

When speaking to residents in public — especially while monitoring social distancing — officers are supposed to use distinct verbal commands from 15 feet away and use the PA speaker system in police cars.

Davis said the police department has responded to multiple calls about residents failing to practice proper social distancing, but none have resulted in a formal citation. 

Economic impacts of the coronavirus

Small businesses across the city are struggling during the pandemic. 

Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said the department is working with members of Durham’s Small Business Advisory Committee to provide small business owners and employees with as much information as possible about their financial options, including unemployment insurance and Small Business Association (SBA) programs. Pettigrew and his team are disseminating information and advice through webinars and a website portal

He said one of his biggest challenges is helping small business owners and independent contractors who do not have the required information to submit their application to the SBA for relief services.  

Even those who do qualify will have difficulty reaping the benefits because of bottlenecks in the system. On April 3, its first day of operation, the SBA payroll program received applications requesting between $3 and $5 billion.

City officials are currently in talks with other large cities to project the impact COVID-19 will have on the economy. Durham’s Budget and Management Services department director Bertha Johnson said there is a projected 10% loss from sales tax alone — a significant blow to the city given that sales tax generates $71 million a year.

According to Johnson, budget development guidelines will be revised to address complications caused by the pandemic, and the city manager is scheduled to present his budget for the next financial quarter on May 18. 

City council changes 

Amid the coronavirus news, council member Vernetta Alston announced her resignation and plan to join the state’s General Assembly, effective April 9. 

The council debated how to fill Alston’s seat. Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said that instead of filling the seat in the next 30 days, it should be on the ballot this fall.

Middleton argued that the proposed time frame would be unfair to residents who, under different circumstances, would apply for the position, but are unable to due the pandemic. 

“I don’t think we should create a higher bar than already exists to sit on this council for folks who may not have computer access, who would have filled out an application but are worried about unemployment right now, or are worried about bills,” he said.  

However, other members of the council disagreed, citing concerns about leaving the seat open for an extended period of time. The motion to appoint a new member in 30 days passed 5-2. The application and questionnaire will go live online on April 13.    

Top photo: Screenshot from the Durham City Council meeting on April 6.

Where you can and cannot go while stay-at-home order is in effect

Now that most everyone in Durham is two weeks into staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a question emerges: If you need something besides groceries and gas, what’s still open?

There has been some confusion about stay-at-home orders. One Reddit user, under the name fireberri, asked, “Sorry if this is a dumb question. With this new order, does this affect all of Durham county, or just the jurisdiction of the City of Durham?”  

The first order, which was citywide, went into effect March 26. The second was Gov. Roy Cooper’s statewide order; it started on March 30. The third was the countywide order, announced last week by Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs. It went into effect March 29. 

In an effort to quell confusion and prevent the coronavirus from spreading, Schewel and Jacobs announced Friday afternoon that they combined and amended their orders into a stricter one. It goes into effect Saturday at 5 p.m.  

The orders outline rules for what businesses are deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open to the public, what type of travel is permitted and reasons residents can leave their homes. It also states that the Durham Police Department and the Durham County Sheriff’s Office will enforce these rules.

Here is what you need to know about “essential” businesses in Durham County. Before you go, look online or call ahead — though many of these types of places are allowed to remain open, some have changed hours or closed temporarily. 

Food

No restaurants are open for dine-in service, but you can still get takeout or drive-thru. Some are offering delivery, either through their own employees or through services like UberEats, Postmates and Doordash. Coffee shops are closed, but many are offering limited walk-up menus and encouraging customers to order bags of coffee online. 

Grocery stores, food banks and ABC Liquor stores remain open. Farmers markets can only do pickup and delivery. 

Businesses allowed to stay open must comply with social distancing precautions. For instance, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods only allow a certain number of customers in their stores at a time, and enforce social distancing when customers are waiting to check out. The chain grocery stores have reserved hours for seniors and other high-risk shoppers. 

Healthcare

Almost all medical facilities are open, including pharmacies, hospitals, dental and eye care clinics, urgent care facilities and physical therapy practices. However, the county is requiring them to offer as many of their services online as possible.   

Pet food suppliers and veterinary offices are open. Some vet offices are not letting owners in, instead providing curbside drop-off and pickup of animals. 

Transportation

In order to allow residents to get to where they need to be, businesses needed for transportation — gas stations, car dealers, bike shops, and auto repair shops — are still open. Construction can still continue, as well, which is why you might see road work happening.  

Parks and Gyms

Though all gyms, yoga studios, and other workout facilities are closed, you can still get out of the house for exercise. Anyone can walk, bike, hike, or jog through local public parks and trails, including Durham Central Park and Duke Forest. Due to excessive crowds, Eno River State Park, as well as some other state parks, are temporarily closed. Dog parks in Durham are off-limits. All sports with shared equipment are banned, including tennis.

For at-home workouts, check with your local gyms and studios; many are doing online video classes during the pandemic.   

Other stores and services 

All stores that remain are required to have social distancing and sanitation practices. Spas, nail and hair salons, barber shops and tattoo parlors are all closed. Laundromats, dry cleaners and laundry services are open. You can still buy home supplies at convenience, warehouse, hardware, and supply stores. As of Friday, businesses providing services in a residential setting must require employees to wear masks covering their mouth and nose. 

Entertainment

When it comes to entertainment, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and board games may be your best bet: Malls, movie theaters, bookstores, libraries and amusement parks are closed.

Banks and post offices

You can still send and receive parcels since the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS and the like are operating. You can still visit banks and other financial institutions, but health officials recommend avoiding going if you can get access services online.

The countywide order is expected to remain in place until April 30. In the meantime you can support local businesses forced to shut down by purchasing gift cards to use when they reopen, buying merchandise online or donating to relief funds. Here’s one: the North Carolina Hospitality Workforce Relief Fund

Photos from City of Durham

County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs extended stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers Saturday as local officials moved to stem the rapidly growing number of coronavirus cases in Durham, which reached 103 on Friday.

The new county measures broaden a citywide order that Mayor Steve Schewel implemented two days ago and adds new requirements for local businesses and childcare facilities. The county order goes into effect Sunday at 5 p.m. 

With Schewel’s consent and collaboration, Jacobs said the new rules extend stay-at-home and workplace requirements to parts of the county outside the city’s jurisdiction, including the Durham side of Research Triangle Park.

The 13-page order points to a federal list of critical infrastructure sectors to guide local businesses as they decide who should and should not be going to work. It also lays out  new sanitation and social distancing requirements for local businesses, as well as residents. These requirements include mandatory temperature checks for all employees at the start of each workday, maintaining six feet between all individuals, thoroughly washing hands as frequently as possible, and prohibiting the sharing of tools or workplace instruments.

“It really boils down to personal responsibility and just responsibility of all of our employers,” Jacobs said of the new requirements.

The order asks that childcare facilities abide by more stringent guidelines. Specifically, all childcare must be carried out in specific, unchanging groups. That means the same adult must be with the same group of children each day. These groups also are required to remain in separate rooms throughout the day, and they are prohibited from mixing.

Professional services such as legal, accounting, insurance and real estate also have strict new guidelines. All services are required to be carried out by a single individual, and may only take place if they are necessary for a closing sale. The ordinance prohibits in-person showings and open houses, but Jacobs encouraged real estate agents to take advantage of online tools like Facebook Live events for showing houses.

Jacobs emphasized that the county rules are more restrictive than a statewide order announced Friday by Gov. Roy Cooper. In order to most accurately target Durham County’s virus loci, Jacobs emphasized that local ordinances and rules take precedence over those in the state order, which takes effect Monday.

Jacobs acknowledged the inconsistencies in limits on social gatherings in different places, as some prohibit gatherings of any size, while others prohibit gatherings of more than two people. As of right now, both the state and local ordinances prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. However, Jacobs said this rule does not mean people should be going out of their way to socialize. “You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” she insisted.

Should the gathering limit prove too large in the coming weeks, the County Board will work with the mayor and county Health Director to amend the social gathering guidelines. 

Jacobs explained the new rules in a Facebook video from the County Board’s chamber Saturday afternoon. She pushed through a cough throughout the 40-minute announcement, but assured the audience that it was allergies, not COVID-19. She said she tested negative for the virus, and had practiced self-quarantining while waiting for her results.

Jacobs signed off by echoing an optimistic message from Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: “To our beloved Bull City, we can do this, we are strong, we are in this together.”

At top: County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures Saturday. Facebook video image by 9th Street Journal

Durham County officials juggle coronavirus, cyberattack response

Durham County has been hit with a one-two punch: the COVID-19 pandemic and a significant ransomware cyberattack. In a special virtual meeting on Friday, the Durham Board of Commissioners discussed the county’s progress on tackling both issues. 

County officials are working to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected 102 Durham County residents so far. Public health officials are tracing any individuals who have been in contact with those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.     

Officials are also taking precautions themselves. They relocated from the Broad street office to Durham’s Health and Human Services building, which allows enough office space for them to maintain social distancing. Leslie O’Connor, Emergency Management Division Chief, said COVID-19 screenings are also taking place in the building.

Commissioners pushed for increased caution when it comes to social distancing. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home order on Friday, and the city of Durham’s order from Mayor Steve Schewel went into effect Thursday. Gatherings of more than 10 people are banned. The commission approved an emergency measure that allows chair Wendy Jacobs to enforce the orders. 

During the meeting, Commissioner Heidi Carter said she wants a stricter ruling on social gatherings. “We’re not hammering this bloody virus hard enough if there’s a provision in our order to allow 10 people to be together still,” she said. 

While managing the county’s COVID-19 response, county officials are also working to manage the repercussions of the ransomware cyberattack on city and county governments on March 6. It happened just days after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in North Carolina. 

“This has been an all-hands-on-deck exercise, working 24-hour shifts and weekends to restore resources here in the county,” said Greg Marrow, the county’s chief information officer.

The attack left the county with a hefty clean-up job. The county’s email system was back up and running as of Friday. Marrow said the IT team has successfully reinstalled software on all county computers and laptops and scanned over 2 million documents across 300 servers and 800 databases. However, there’s still a significant amount of work to be done: The IT team estimates the number of documents that need to be scanned will reach into the terabytes. 

Marrow warned residents to be extremely cautious when clicking on links or opening websites about COVID-19 to prevent future attacks from happening. 

“Hackers are having a field day around the country taking advantage of the panic going on right now, so we all need to be mindful of that,” he said.

The county will hold a press conference on March 28 at 2:00 p.m. in the county chambers, where commissioners will  discuss Cooper’s executive order to stay at home.

Top photo: Screenshot of the virtual Board of Commissioners meeting on Friday, March 27. 

Scrap Exchange repurposing Lakewood Shopping Center

When the Scrap Exchange moved into Durham’s Lakewood Shopping Center in 2014, the mall had fallen far from its days in the 1960s as a hotspot for shopping, swimming and skating. Buildings were empty and in disrepair. 

The nonprofit — which promotes reuse by selling items and materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill — made its new home in an abandoned movie theater. It has spent six years working to bring life back to the area. 

Now, Ann Woodward, a longtime Scrap Exchange employee, has an even more ambitious vision: a project called the Reuse Arts District (RAD), which she is spearheading on her own.

Led by Woodward and established as a separate nonprofit by the Scrap Exchange, RAD will be a community hub with eight reuse arts programs, nonprofits and shops, affordable housing units, community gardens, a sculpture park, a basketball court, a skateboard park and a playground. 

The nonprofit has raised tens of millions of dollars for the project, which is progressing but not moving as quickly as Scrap Exchange originally envisioned.

When completed, RAD is expected to create 25 full-time jobs with benefits. The organization has partnered with nine local agencies, some of which manage employment re-entry programs for veterans, formerly incarcerated people and seniors. The hope is for many employees to live in the affordable housing units that will eventually be built on the property.

“Creating a space where everyone can live, work, play, shop, recreate, be comfortable going outside—that’s what we’re working towards,” Woodward said.  

Since its founding in 1991, the Scrap Exchange has hosted countless community meet-up programs, school field trips and workshops about how to reuse materials for both art and everyday purposes. 

The Scrap Exchange says it saves 167 tons of the 11 million tons of waste generated in North Carolina from going to landfills each year. By adding the eight new reuse arts programs—a music production studio, a Recycle-A-Bicycle shop, an architectural salvage spot to resell construction waste—the organization expects that number to grow significantly.

RAD will reuse the buildings in the shopping center rather tearing down and rebuilding new. The organization has faced some criticism from residents who claim the project will gentrify the area. Woodward disagrees. 

“If you move into an abandoned location, you are revitalizing, you are not kicking anybody out,” she said. “I look at the high-rise retail things that are going up all over Durham — like, that’s gentrification.” 

A community garden at the Scrap Exchange location. Photo by Corey Pilson

Woodward added that the model for development is designed “to help stabilize communities” through neighborhood integration, job creation and quality affordable housing for people in Durham who are making less $12.28 an hour, the city’s living wage, including those who work for the Scrap Exchange and its neighbors. 

But the project is slow-moving. The first phase of the plan was to lease 105,000 square feet of the mall to tenants who fit the family-friendly vision of the space by 2017.

The expected completion date, however, was pushed back to the end of 2020 because of the time it’s taken to find the right tenants.

RAD has secured leases for all but two of its biggest properties and plans to finalize those this year. Woodward said she rejected multiple applicants, like tobacco or gambling shops, in favor of waiting for more community-focused tenants like El Futuro, a mental health facility for Latino families, a craft store, a food pantry, a music hall and a thrift store. 

“I feel like we have a really good mix of social services and some for-profit businesses as well [that are] related to the arts,” Woodward said. 

The second phase is fundraising and planning for the housing and commercial development on the property. Though the RAD has had a community garden since 2015, other community amenities are lacking.

According to Woodward, RAD still needs to look for a majority of their project partners before plans are more concrete. 

The Scrap Exchange got a $2.5 million loan from the North Carolina Community Development Initiative Capital, which funds community development, and is conducting a feasibility study for the project until 2021 to see how much more funding is necessary. The project also has a $1 million loan from Duke University and $6.2 million in loans from nonprofit lender Self Help Ventures Fund. 

The organization wants to ultimately raise $100 million to establish the National Center for Creative Reuse, which would function as a national hub for mentorship on how other cities can form reuse economies.

RAD has full support from the city council and mayor, which agreed to give $660,000 for affordable housing. The organization has 10 years to use the grant. The plan is to build a minimum of 33 affordable housing units, but the space allows for a total of 170 units. 

“I think it could be transformative for that neighborhood,” said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. 

He added that nobody on the city council had any objections to the funding proposal. “It was very enthusiastically received.”

Top photo: The Scrap Exchange is building a community hub and affordable housing at the Lakewood Shopping Center. Photo by Corey Pilson

‘A city for all’: Mayor’s State of the City address focuses on racial justice

During his State of the City speech Monday night, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel stressed the importance of addressing three major issues — public housing, climate change and gun violence — that disproportionately impact African Americans.

He vowed to take on “the devastating and lasting legacy of racism, our great, national sin.”

Schewel introduced public housing reform efforts by recognizing the pain caused by the crisis at public housing complex McDougald Terrace, where 270 families were evacuated in January due to carbon monoxide leaks. 

“For 40 years, we have failed you,” Schewel said to the residents in the crowd, emphasizing his administration’s efforts to do “the work that the federal government should be doing” through Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding.

Schewel outlined plans to allocate more than $15 million in tax funds for the Durham Housing Authority’s (DHA) renovations of hundreds of affordable housing units, and $1.4 million in upgrades for the electrical system at McDougald Terrace. 

DHA will use $59 million of the $95 million affordable housing bond voters overwhelmingly approved in 2019 to redevelop properties into mixed income communities with no increase in rent, he said.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Credit: Wikimedia photo

Former Durham city council member Jackie Wagstaff said she isn’t satisfied by the proposed housing initiatives because they aren’t affordable for people living in poverty.

“For some of us that live in this community, you didn’t speak our language,” she said to Schewel at the city council meeting after the address. “When you have no income, but you need somewhere to live, how do y’all address that?”

In the address, Schewel emphasized other justice issues in Durham as well. He announced a climate action plan to localize the efforts of the proposed Green New Deal — a vision he dubbed “Green New Durham.” 

Some efforts include renegotiating an agreement with Duke Energy so Durham has more control over its use of solar power, requiring all city-funded construction to meet sustainable building standards and halving the waste sent to landfills by 2024. 

He proposed making public transportation systems more efficient, with a focus on providing services to low-income residents. 

The mayor also cited violence in the city as an urgent problem. Despite the decline in shooting victims in the last three years, he said 189 people were shot in the last year in Durham, and that he is determined to bring that number down. 

Schewel expressed his support for a proposal to add six new officers to the police department’s gang unit — a measure unanimously passed by the city council Monday night. 

The city will continue supporting racial equity training for officers, second-chance initiatives for people with criminal records and deferral of first-time offenders to Durham’s misdemeanor diversion court. 

Schewel also announced plans to pressure Congress to create a comprehensive national reparation policy for racial injustice.

He invited mayors from neighboring cities and towns to join him, because he wants the work to start at home.

‘It’s been a tough year, but still, we rise,” Schewel said. “Let’s make this city we love a city for all.”   

Displaced McDougald Terrace residents make City Council members listen

On paper, the agenda for Tuesday night’s City Council meeting seemed to do a lot of good.

Sister Cities of Durham, a non-profit connecting Durham to cities around the world, announced its upcoming trip with two City Council members to its new Sister City, Tilaran, Costa Rica. 

City Council Member Charlie Reece stood to recognize the upcoming Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution, a tribute to Japanese Americans who challenged forced internment during World War II. 

But for people evacuated from McDougald Terrace, the unsafe public housing complex, the agenda was lacking. For one, they weren’t on it. And Costa Rica and the 1940s are vastly remote from their plight.

“I know there are several people here who are interested in making comments regarding the situation at McDougald Terrace,” Mayor Steve Schewel said early in the meeting. “That is not on our agenda.” 

Schewel said he would talk with any residents who wanted to discuss the status of the housing complex, some of whom spoke to Council members on Jan. 6, after the meeting.

Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton soon reported his understanding that McDougald residents will not return home as quickly as some had hoped. “It’s going to be at least a couple more weeks,” he said.

Before Schewel could move to the “priority items” on the agenda, residents and supporters erupted, shouting that the mayor should change the agenda.

“They’re eating like peasants!” one yelled.

“Y’all let us eat macaroni and cheese cups every day,” McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canady yelled as she stormed toward the exit. “We tired, we fed up, and we are tired.”

After residents left the meeting room in a rage, Schewel requested that the glass doors separating the council chambers from a lobby be closed. The mayor then pushed on with the meeting.

Residents circled Canady in the lobby, while local news cameras recorded. “You think we want to live like this? We don’t want this, we didn’t pick this,” she yelled.

When Canady broke down into loud sobs, a small group of women comforted her. Young boys and girls ran restlessly around the lobby and other residents shouted at council members through the doors.  

“I should be able to cook a home cooked meal for my son,” McDougald Terrace resident Shimey Harvey said, choking back tears. 

Even if Harvey had access to a stove rather than the microwave in the motel that she and her son have been temporarily relocated to, the food stipend provided by the DHA isn’t enough, she said, and everyday tasks have become so much harder.

For Harvey, that means calling in a favor from her friend who works as an Uber driver to take her son to school. She then uses part of her food stipend to cover the cost of gas of picking him up at the McDougald Terrace bus stop at the end of the day and driving him back to the motel. 

“That’s where my little money that they give us goes to. Gas and fast food,” she said. 

Canady’s sobs did not last long. Soon she was leading chants in the lobby. “Enough is enough,” residents and their supporters yelled, raising their fists.  

“Our babies living in hotels, while you fly your ass to Costa Rica,” one protestor cried. 

After a vote to alter outdoor lighting rules about an hour into the meeting, Schewel relented.

“I’m going to reverse my previous decision. I thought that a meeting afterwards would be suitable to have a good discussion with folks but apparently, they don’t think so,” the mayor said before inviting McDougald residents and protestors back. 

Each was given two minutes to speak, the standard time for public comments during Council meetings. Some residents used the opportunity to complain about their children’s lack of access to healthy food. Others focused on their children’s inability to be active inside the hotels. 

“My kids keep thinking we’re going home, then they hear that we have more weeks to be in a hotel? I’m tired of it, my kids are tired of it,” one mother said, adding she’s fearful her family will get “put out” if their playing disturbs others.

The mental health of children and their parents should be a primary concern, resident Laura Betye said. “We have an emergency situation on our hands,” she told Council members. “We desperately need mental health counseling.”

Some who had visited their McDougald Terrace apartments said they were disappointed with the lack of renovation progress. “I have holes in my walls, mold. How can you say you’re gonna fix something and you’re not even gonna fix the foundation?,” one woman said. 

After listening, Schewel spoke. “I can really appreciate that this uncertainty is really difficult to live with. I understand that and I really feel for each of you all who are in that situation, that’s a terrible situation,” he said.

Schewel then thanked the residents. “I appreciate you all being here… and appreciate your patience, and appreciate your sense of urgency as well,”  he said.

During her time on the podium, Canady made it clear that she is out of patience. 

“If I have to disrupt every city function, every county function, I want all the smoke. I want it,” she said. “Because if they disrupt our lives, we about to disrupt theirs.”