Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in “Business”

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

Newly jobless hit bumps filing for unemployment pay

Now that state and local government orders have shuttered restaurants, bars, gyms and many other businesses, the ranks of people laid off in North Carolina keeps swelling. 

Gov. Roy Cooper has made moves to simplify signing up for unemployment benefits. But people trying to get that job done say glitches with a state website can make it tough to get started. 

Alexis Graves waited tables at Durham’s celebrated Italian restaurant Gocciolina before she was let go on March 17. Though Gocciolina remains open for take-out, without floor service, Graves and all other waiters are out of work.

When Graves got word of the layoffs from her manager, she immediately started filing for unemployment, a process that can be done online. She logged into the state website around 3:30 p.m, she said.

“I sat down and started trying,” Graves said. “It was so slow, and then things started timing out.”

Graves finally gave up and restarted her application later in the evening. She was able to finish around 1 a.m., she said.

“It was seriously glitchy,” Graves said. “The website doesn’t function well, even in the best of times. But right now, it’s frightening.”

Almost 220,000 North Carolinians filed for unemployment between March 16 and 26, according to Larry Parker, spokesperson for the Division of Employment Security. That’s 60,000 more than all the unemployment claims filed in North Carolina throughout 2019. 

The Division of Employment Security recently posted 50 new jobs it will fill to handle the influx of claims, Parker said. One listing, for a call center representative at the division, notes that applicants can expect to take around 60-80 calls per day.

But calling to file an unemployment claim can be even slower than filing online, according to some people recently made jobless.

Ashley Zepeda at her former job tending bar at Bartaco in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of Zepeda

Ashley Zepeda was laid off from her job as a bartender at Raleigh’s Bartaco on Monday. When she tried to file for unemployment online, the website kept crashing, she said. So, she tried calling the department. 

“I got an automated message,” Zepeda said. “It’s a lady who says, ‘I’m sorry, there’s too many people calling. Try again later, goodbye.’ Then it hangs up on you.”

Zepeda kept trying the state website, but it continued to crash. “You can’t do it online, and you can’t do it on the phone,” she said.

Complaints about the situation are showing up on social media, including posts on Durham’s Reddit thread. People across North Carolina have reported a glitchy unemployment website and long wait times on the phone. 

The Division of Employment Security acknowledges the issues with their phone lines, writing online “our customer call center is experiencing high call volume” and urging people to use their online system to avoid waiting on hold.

“We had some initial web issues last week but upgraded our server capacity and that has helped tremendously,” wrote Parker in an email. “We are asking that people make sure they walk through the process — not run.”

Last week, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore created a remote legislative committee to address the impacts of coronavirus. That group drafted a bill, named the COVID-19 Response Act, to finalize the changes the governor had already made to unemployment benefits. 

Those changes include removing the one-week waiting period, giving employers tax credits for paying into unemployment funds, and allowing employees with reduced work hours to apply for benefits. The committee meets again next Tuesday. 

After Graves finished her unemployment application online, she waited four days for confirmation that it had been received. A week later, she found her weekly award amount lacking, she said.

As a waitress, Graves’ benefits are based only on her hourly wage, not including tips. That makes her award amount lower than it should be if it included her true income, she said.

“I’m trying to decide whether to dispute it,” Graves said. “But I probably won’t. It’ll just make the whole thing take longer.”

She said she doesn’t want to try using the website again or calling the Division of Employment Security.

“I’d rather just have something, even if it’s barely enough to live on,” she said.

Graves had some words of advice for anyone trying to apply for unemployment benefits in the coming weeks.

“Don’t try to call them. Don’t try to do it through mail. Don’t use your browser’s back button,” she warned. “And make sure everything you put in the first time is accurate, because if you have to edit something, it probably won’t work.”

At top: Unemployment filings in North Carolina spiked in March. Chart by Cameron Beach

Durham owner to Gov. Cooper: Food, drink industry needs more aid

After ordering restaurants and bars across North Carolina today to shut down all but take-out service, Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plan to support the restaurant industry: easier access to unemployment benefits.

But a Durham bar owner has organized a drive to tell Cooper that the industry needs much more to survive efforts to contain COVID-19.

Lindsey Andrews, co-owner of Arcana bar in Durham, posted a letter online urging Cooper to provide more aid during the coronavirus closures.

As of early Tuesday evening, over 160 restaurant owners, bartenders, and other food service workers across the Triangle had signed on.

“We, as employees and owners, will lose significant income or be laid off,” the letter states. “We will not survive without immediate and decisive action from the government.”

The letter calls on Cooper to support unemployment benefits for all workers, eliminate payroll taxes and mandate rent, loan and utility cuts for businesses and employees harmed by the closures.

In a press conference today announcing the closures, Cooper discussed unemployment, promising that the state will remove barriers such as the one-week waiting periods to apply for benefits. North Carolina also won’t ask employers to fund benefits for layoffs related to coronavirus, he said.

But for many restaurant and bar owners, that isn’t enough, Andrews said.

“The unemployment issue was a big one, but that’s not going to pay people what they need when they’re losing so much,” she said. “We really need a moratorium on rent and loan payments.”

Andrews had to shut down Arcana completely. Unlike some restaurants, bars can’t offer take-out options.

“We’ve asked for a rent abatement from our landlord, but we’re hoping for a directive from higher up,” she said. “Worst-case scenario, this could go on for months.”

Chef Matt Kelly owns five popular Durham restaurants, including Vin Rouge, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, and the recently reopened Saint James Seafood. Tuesday, for the first time in his career, he was calling employees one-by-one to lay them off.

“I’ve never done it,” he said. “I’ve never laid one person off. But no one really has a choice.”

Kelly has been part of multiple efforts to advocate for relief from local, state, and federal authorities, he said. Eliminating payroll tax and starting rent abatements are some of the measures that could provide “immediate relief” for restaurants and their employees, he said.

Andrews said that her business’ needs will depend on how long closures last. If Arcana can’t open for more than a few weeks, she would need a “total freeze” on expenses to make it through.

But “we could go longer if we get the kind of aid we need,” she said.

Both Kelly and Andrews want to reopen after the COVID-19 crisis fades. Kelly worries most about Saint James Seafood, his newest restaurant that reopened only two months ago after it was badly damaged in last April’s gas explosion in downtown Durham.  

“We had to use all our capital on Saint James,” he said.

Both owners agreed that aid from the state could significantly improve prospects for many others in their shoes.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be any viability for anyone unless we get more serious relief,” Andrews said.

At top: There was no sign of customers walking or driving on a stretch of Ninth Street, usually a busy commercial center, Tuesday morning. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

Foodie Durham must shut down dining rooms

Gov. Roy Cooper is requiring all North Carolina restaurants and bars to confine their businesses to take-out sales starting at 5 p.m. today.

This is a public health move other states are deploying  to squash the growth curve of lethal COVID-19. It is also potentially a huge blow to the economy of Durham, which even outsiders know as the “foodie capital of the South.”

This is a reputation built by local owners of smallish spots. West Main Street in Durham is crowded with such restaurants and bars whose business will be hurt by the COVID-19 shut down.

In the stretch of Main Street between Albemarle and North Gregson, sit a number of Durham staples, including James Joyce, The Federal and Maverick’s. 

Fergus Bradley, a managing partner at the three restaurants, today said each will be open for take out. 

Patrons enjoyed outdoor seating at James Joyce Tuesday, while they could. Gov. Roy Cooper is requiring restaurants statewide to only sell take-out food. Photo by Corey Pilson

Both James Joyce and Maverick’s already do take-out independent of third-party delivery apps. They plan to add curbside pickup too, allowing customers to stay in their cars when picking up meals.

Cooper’s big news isn’t the only blow, Bradley said. “Fifty percent of our business over at Maverick’s is catering, and that was all cancelled,” Bradley said. 

Mavericks’ business was harmed last year too, by the deadly explosion in April.  “We were just beginning to get ourselves up out of that hole,” Bradley said.

In the days after the explosion, Maverick’s had no power, but gave first responders  free meals. The smokehouse is trying to be a resource in the community amidst the current pandemic. 

In the past couple of days, staff has given local children free hot dogs around lunchtime, a Maverick’s staff member said. Wednesday, they will host a free breakfast taco breakfast for children. 

At the same time, the business is trying to adapt. Bradley said he is in conversation with suppliers to possibly turn Maverick’s into a general store to sell essential items like toilet paper, sanitizing supplies, milk, eggs and bread.  

“It’s devastating. We want to make sure that we put our people first; our regular customers and our staff,” said Bradley, looking up at the James Joyce sign. 

St. Patrick’s day is usually a day of large crowds at bars and restaurants, but not this year. 

James Joyce, an Irish pub, had a celebration scheduled with bagpipes and all. Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled.

But the pub was not deserted. Almost every seat at the bar was taken and there were people occupying every table on the patio. 

The Social, another Durham favorite when it comes to event space, is closed until further notice, said Bradley who is also a partner there. 

At top: Expect to see many more “Closed” or “Take-Out Only” signs as Durham restaurants comply with Gov. Roy Cooper’s order to shut down their dining rooms. This one is posted at Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub. Photo by Corey Pilson

Are local book stores endangered? Not in Durham

Ever since large chain bookstores and Amazon took over the bookselling market, popular culture has often relegated the independent bookstore to a thing of the past, painting it as a quiet space filled with stacks of aging, dusty books.  

In reality, independent bookstores are thriving  — especially in Durham, where there are at least five, including one that opened just last year. 

In fact, there was a 35% increase in the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015, and their profits have continued to rise, according to the American Booksellers Association

Durham authors, researchers and bookstore owners say that independent bookstores continue to be successful because they serve as community hubs, each with their own distinct personality and specific niche of books.  

“Independent bookstores simply are cultural centers and community resources in a way an online retailer is not,” said Orin Starn, a history and cultural anthropology professor at Duke University who has published several books and sold them at The Regulator in Durham. 

Over the past several decades, the bookselling industry has seen drastic changes. In the 1970s, almost every bookstore in the country was independent, owned and operated by locals, according to a 2017 Harvard study

When chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders opened in the 1990s and offered customers a more convenient book buying experience, many independent stores went out of business. The creation of Amazon exacerbated their decline: The number of independent stores fell 43% between 1995 and 2000, according to the American Booksellers Association. 

Then, things changed. Amazon’s cheap prices and quick delivery pushed chain bookstores out. Borders went out of business in 2011; Barnes & Noble has been suffering from declining sales for the past five years. 

Meanwhile, independent bookstores reemerged as a small but significant player.

“People like to live in the physical world and not always on the computer,” said Land Arnold, owner of Durham’s Letters Bookshop. 

Besides providing a physical space to browse, independent bookstores appeal to their local customers by promoting a sense of community through events, including author talks and open mic nights. Most also sell merchandise like vintage ads, postcards, buttons, and stationary. 

Independent bookstores often serve as community hubs, hosting events and book readings. Photo by Corey Pilson

Starn, the Duke professor and author, said “bookstores have been a magnificent thing for Durham by providing community events and supporting local authors with book rollout parties.”

Durham’s bookstore scene is still growing. Last year, David Bradley opened his bookstore, Golden Fig Books on a stretch of Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard that holds lots of small, local businesses. The store has tall, black bookshelves that make the colors of the books pop, small reading nooks near large windows and shiny hardwood floors.

Bradley said Durham bookstores are successful because they each create unique experiences for customers. 

“There should be certain values that each bookstore holds, a different ambience and an eye on developing trends and interests within the community,” he said.

In addition to used books, Golden Fig Books sells t-shirts, pin and tote bags, and hosts community events such as author talks and literary trivia nights. Bradley said he thinks there’s an “increased appetite” in the Triangle for these community spaces. 

Still, running an independent bookstore is challenging.

“My main competition is getting the word out about my bookstore and being noticed in the marketplace,” Bradley said. 

Other bookstores in Durham utilize similar strategies to attract customers. The Regulator Bookshop, near Duke University, has been around since 1976. It hosts events like story time for children and a poetry series. It also offers discounts for students and teachers and provides books to local organizations like the Durham Literacy Center and the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project. 

Wentworth and Leggett Books, which has been in Durham for 37 years, specializes in antiquarian books, hosts live music, and sells antique maps, postcards, prints, and magazine ads.

For many customers, these places have become resilient community anchors — and a better alternative to shopping online. 

“People don’t want to buy their books in a cookie cutter way,” Starn said. “In an independent bookstore, you can see people you know, pick up books, start to read them, and browse in a way that is somehow not exactly the same experience as online.”

Top photo: The Golden Fig Bookstore in Durham. Photo by Corey Pilson