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Posts published by “Kathleen Hobson”

Durham cancels trick or treating. Will crowds obey?

COVID-19 has claimed its next holiday victim in Durham: trick or treating on Halloween.

Donning a witch’s hat, Steve Schewel announced last week that Oct. 31 celebrations must look different this year to keep Durham residents safe.

Durham Parks and Recreation has created stand-in events to make sure this spooky season does not get overlooked, Schewel promised. 

“Durham residents have done a great job suppressing the coronavirus, wearing masks and social distancing and washing hands,” Schewel said during a press conference posted online. “The last thing that we want is for Halloween to become a super spreader event in our community.”

With North Carolina reporting over 230,000 cases, Durham County currently accounts for less than 1% of the cases in the state, but there have still been over 8,000 reported cases and 97 reported deaths here, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Schewel said he spoke with leaders of neighborhood that usually get the most trick-or-treaters, other North Carolina mayors and the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Mandy Cohen, to explore how to handle Halloween during this pandemic. 

Outdoor mass gatherings are still limited to 50 people, meaning that the usual masses of costumed trick-or-treaters can not flood the streets. 

Club Boulevard in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood usually attracts so many trick-or-treaters along one mile that the city usually dispatches traffic cones and police officers to protect the masses of children. They will not do so this year, to emphasize that trick-or-treaters should not flood Club Boulevard or nearby streets accustomed to big crowds. 

The number of Halloween candy pieces handed out at two homes on West Club Boulevard each Halloween has long exceeded 1,000. Stormy weather accounts for dips in 2011 and 2019. Chart courtesy of Dot Doyle

Normally people there leave their porch lights on to welcome candy seekers, but this year Schewel is urging residents to turn them off.  “We know we can’t make this all work through enforcement, we have to make it work through our community voluntarily complying,” Schewel said.

But can it?

Tom Miller, who has lived in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood since 1983, trusts that people there are committed to discouraging the 1,000-plus trick-or-treaters they have welcomed in years past.

He does worry, however, that not everyone will be aware of the new situation and still come to the neighborhood. 

“People in my neighborhood do not want to spread COVID or be responsible for anyone becoming ill,” Miller said. “I won’t be surprised if people don’t get the word and come here. I’m worried about that. But I don’t believe that you’re going to see people on the street setting up this year as normal.”

Watts Hospital-Hillandale residents, who in the past have possibly drawn the most trick-or-treaters citywide, will post signs around their neighborhood about a week before to make the message explicit.  

“I urge other of the busiest Halloween neighborhoods to do the same,” said Schewel, who lives on leafy Club Boulevard near Ninth Street. He estimated more than 1,500 trick-or-treaters from Durham and out of town visited last year for candy. 

Although residents hate to post signs to deter one of their favorite holiday traditions, this year’s restrictions are necessary, said Dot Doyle, Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association president. 

“If we have 1,500 children and their grown ups, that’s four or maybe five thousand people on the sidewalks in five blocks, which is just not possible with social distancing,” Doyle said, adding that she hopes she and neighbors can welcome everyone back in 2021.

Despite plans to discourage trick or treating in Watts Hospital-Hillandale, some yards are already gussied up for the holiday. Photo by Henry Haggart

Residents of Monmouth Avenue in Trinity Park, another popular destination, have found an alternative way to hand out treats this year. They plan to assemble candy bags they’ll donate to the Durham Children’s Initiative.

“On my block of Monmouth Avenue, we get over 1,300 kids,” said Pela Gereffi, who personally handed out 1,178 pieces of candy last year. “But we decided to go by what the mayor had stated — we’re not going to celebrate Halloween. We’re going to turn off our lights.” 

“Trunk or treat” events of the past, where large groups of children gather in church parking lots to move from car to car, are also too dangerous for this year, Schewel said. Faith communities can celebrate through touchless drive-thru trick or treating in church parking lots.

The City of Durham has posted suggestions online too, down to wardrobe coaching. “Costume masks should not be placed over a cloth mask as it will make it hard to breathe. Instead, it is suggested that participants use a Halloween-themed cloth mask over the costume mask,” the post says.

“If your family wants to trick or treat with a few other families, this is encouraged, as long as you pre-arrange the visits, the groups are small and outside only, everyone is wearing a Covid-safe mask and the transmission of treats is touchless,” Schewel said.

Durham Parks and Recreation All Hallows’ Eve events will be open to the public, but to limit crowd sizes, pre-registration is required. Among the events:

Fright Night” is a drive-thru event that will be held on Oct. 23 from 6-9 p.m. at Pineywood Park. Participants are encouraged to dress in Halloween costumes and participate in a safe, drive-thru trunk or treat.  There will also be a haunted drive-thru trail, and a socially distanced viewing of “James and the Giant Peach” on the lawn. This event will cost $1.50 for city residents and $6.50 for non-city residents. 

“Vamp It Up” will be a virtual Zoom event hosted on Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Participants can pick up supplies beforehand on Oct. 23 at the Edison Johnson Recreation center. Supplies will include an arts and crafts activity, candy, and a snack such as pretzels or cheez-its. Participants are encouraged to dress in their Halloween costumes for the virtual event. 

The night before Halloween, the Holton Career and Resource center will host a drive-thru event “Trick or Treat, Stay Six Feet.” Participants will need to pre-register for a time slot within 6-8 p.m. Kids will drive to the parking lot and remain in their vehicles to receive free, contactless candy and treats. 

The 32nd annual “Hallow-Eno” will still take place this year, on Oct. 31 from 6-9 p.m. Participants will drive-thru West Point on the Eno’s historic area, and remain in their car to observe the Halloween decorations along the historic park loop, receive goody bags and take-home activities, and enjoy live Halloween music. 

The “Full Moon Fever Bike Ride – Halloween/Blue Moon Ride” will take place on Oct. 31 too from 7:30-10:30 p.m. A community trail watch group will have two start times and locations. The first ride will be approximately 32 miles, and the second ride will be approximately 16 miles. 

“Dias de los Muertos,” a virtual event to celebrate Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, happens Nov. 2 from 10-11 a.m.

“Halloween will be different this year, but Halloween will still be wonderful this year,” Schewel predicted. “I urge all of our residents to be as creative as you can.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: During this presidential election year, Donald Trump and Joe Biden masks are among the offerings at Spirit Halloween on Fayetteville Road. Photo by Henry Haggart

What has Durham learned from last year’s fatal gas pipeline explosion?

Nearly a year ago, a natural gas pipeline exploded in downtown Durham, killing two people, injuring 25 others and damaging more than a dozen buildings. 

One of those buildings was Saint James Seafood. When the pipeline blew up, the restaurant’s glass windows shattered and gold chandeliers crashed to the ground. 

After 10 months of work repairing the building and worrying what the future held for him and his employees, Saint James owner Matt Kelly reopened the restaurant in late January.

He held a dinner for first responders who were there the day of the explosion to thank them for risking their lives. 

“I don’t think anyone could ask more of what that group of people did that day,” he said. 

Those responders say they’ve learned from the disaster and have outlined ways to help prevent it from happening again. 

In November, Durham County Emergency Management released a “Lessons Learned Report” about policy changes that have taken place since the deadly explosion, including improving communication with the public and other agencies in times of disaster and educating the public and responders about natural gas as downtown Durham grows. 

“The way that Durham’s building up, it is kind of changing our way of thinking, knowing that we’ve got a huge shift in population to downtown and everything that goes along with that,” said Jim Groves, the city’s emergency management director. 

Natural gas pipeline leaks and incidents are fairly common throughout the U.S.; most are caused by excavation work like digging utility lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. North Carolina has had 44 natural gas-related pipeline incidents in the past 20 years, but April’s explosion were the first deaths ever recorded in the state.

While laying fiber optic cable on North Duke Street on the morning of April 10, 2019, Optic Cable Technology hit a ¾-inch natural gas pipeline distribution line at the intersection of North Duke Street and West Main Street, causing a gas leak. 

About an hour later, the pipeline exploded, nearly leveling the block. Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee was killed, and Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC Energy worker, died two weeks later. 

A Durham fire department investigation found that the explosion was an accident. But the contractors working that day faced some responsibility: The North Carolina Labor Department fined Optic Cable Technology $7,000 for failing to immediately contact authorities after damaging the line, and another $7,000 for failing to dig a test hole to determine where the pipeline was.

The agency also fined PS Splicing $2,100 for failing “to perform frequent and regular inspections of the site” and PSNC Energy, a subsidiary utility of Dominion Energy, $5,000 for “ineffective response procedures” that exposed a first responder to fire and hazards. The energy company disagreed with the state’s findings. 

The fire department’s report stated that communication systems between city, county, and state agencies about such incidents need to improve. Groves said that on the day of the explosion, Durham public information officials were distracted by the city’s 150th anniversary celebration party downtown, which slowed communication with the public. The delay in reporting the leak made response difficult and more dangerous. 

City and county managers have also developed an initiative for a joint crisis communication plan to more efficiently and uniformly release emergency information to the public through social media and public information officers—a process that was too chaotic on the day of the explosion, according to officials. 

After 10 months of repairs from the natural gas pipeline explosion, Saint James Seafood reopened in January. Photo by Corey Pilson

Still, city policies for the supervision of contractors working near natural gas lines “haven’t changed” since the explosion, said Durham city manager Thomas Bonfield. The state government has jurisdiction over underground development like laying fiber, so the county and city have no authority to send inspectors to monitor work more closely, he said. 

Groves said he wants Durham residents to feel safe downtown, because although natural gas lines can burst or leak, they can typically be prevented if they are reported immediately. 

He said if people “smell [gas], or if they hear a loud hissing, when they call 911 and law enforcement gets there and they give them directions to evacuate — listen and take immediate action.”  

Durham Fire Department chief Robert Zoldos said the fire department came up with 11 points of improvement since the explosion, including more training for hazardous materials situations like the pipeline leak and assigning full time drivers to the hazmat units.

The department also reopened a downtown fire department unit, Rescue One, which specializes in rescues above general expectations of a firefighter, including hazardous material cases. 

“All of those things will provide us with a little better response than we had before—not perfect, but much better than we had,” Zoldos said.  

The Lessons Learned Report offered some closure to Saint James and other businesses. 

“When that came out it was definitely a relief that there was a direction of some blame and that what happened was very thoroughly investigated,” Kelly said.

The block remains quiet since several businesses in the area are still closed. The United Way of the Greater Triangle is hosting fundraisers and looking for grants to help businesses get back on their feet. Kelly said he and others are optimistic the city can keep moving forward.

“We encourage people to come back,” Kelly said. “The Brightleaf area really just wants normalcy, and we’re waiting for our friends next door, Torero’s, to reopen, and get this block back in business.” 

Top Photo: Emergency responders on the scene of the April 10, 2019 fatal natural gas pipeline explosion in downtown Durham. Photo by Katie Nelson

Gunn concedes, says he ‘stood tall’ against ‘political machine’

Joshua Gunn conceded Wednesday, clearing the way for three incumbents to return to the City Council. Although there had been questions about a possible recount because he trailed Javiera Caballero by just 395 votes, Gunn wrote a Facebook post congratulating her and fellow incumbents Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson.  

Let’s be clear, while we may not have gained a seat on City Council, this is a victory,” he wrote. “It was 3 against 1. Three incumbents in a bloc, versus one candidate. What we overcame is incredible. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, we stood tall against the largest political machine in Durham, and without the support of many of Durham’s most influential political figures, and we came within 395 votes of winning a seat on Durham City Council!”

Gunn lost to Caballero by just 395 votes.

 

The reelection of Johnson, Reece, and Caballero won’t be certified until the Durham County Board of Elections meets next week.