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How a Durham artist tracked the city’s public safety budget for a decade

Andrea Cobb, a nationally known artist based in Durham, collected and filed away the annual property tax notices she received in the mail for more than a decade. She carefully examined each, paying particular attention to the chart at the bottom of the page explaining how the city spent its general fund — taxpayer money that covers core city services.

“I wanted to know where my taxes are going,” said Cobb, a 55-year-old Durham native whose art clients include Burt’s Bees, INDY Week, Whole Foods and Kleenex.

Self-portrait by Andrea Cobb. Courtesy of the artist.

She saw a glaring trend in the numbers: In 2009, 35% of the general fund spending went to public safety, which includes the city’s police department, fire department, 911 call services and emergency management. 

That public safety spending rose steadily over the years, reaching a high of about 52% in the 2017- 2018 fiscal year.

Durham’s final city budgets over the same period show that about 60% of public safety money went to the police department each year.

In 2019, property taxes in Durham paid for half of the general fund’s budget. About 50% of the general fund was allotted to public safety at large, and $65 million of that went to the police department — about 61% of the total public safety budget last year.

Cobb said the realization that a decent chunk of her taxes were going to police, rather than public services like education and social services, concerned her.

“It’s a lot of money,” Cobb said. “And, you know, it’s abusive what police departments are doing, and there’s people in our city that have been killed by police.”

Over the years, Cobb has repeatedly asked city officials publicly and privately about the way the city spends property taxes. She’s still grappling with one question: Why is such a large proportion of taxpayer money going to public safety? 

City manager Tom Bonfield told 9th Street Journal that there are several reasons for the increase, including annual raises for police officers and firefighters. “That’s something like a million dollars a year for both the fire department and the police department,” he said. 

There are also specific expenses that account for changes over the years, he said. In 2009, the city scaled back the number of police officers covered in the general fund budget for several years and then added them back in later, which led to increases in the public safety budget. In 2017, the city built a fire station and hired 60 firefighters.

“To take a 2009 number and a 2020 number and then try to run the math without going in and looking at every year, it is a significant oversimplification,” he said. 

Cobb’s concern about the police budget is one that has been discussed in Durham for years. And this year, it’s top of mind for many residents and officials amid protests against police brutality and the City Council’s recent decision to increase the police budget by 5%.

Gathering the data

Cobb has been a resident of Old West Durham since 1994, and said that illegal activity took place in the duplex she called home for years. One incident involved her neighbor; she called the police due to her suspicions about drug dealing. But she said not much changed after that.

“I got to a point where I’m paying the police to keep me safe, and I don’t feel safe,” she said.

So she started saving her tax notices.

Durham General Fund 2019 expenditures, seen at the bottom of Cobb’s tax notices. Photo courtesy Andrea Cobb

In 2011, she reached out via email to Steve Schewel during his City Council campaign to ask about the budget. According to their email correspondence, he told her to contact him again if he won. 

So Cobb emailed again the next year about the suspected drug dealer, writing that she was “a bit peeved with the police asking me to keep helping them given 45% of property tax is paying them to keep [the] district safe,” according to an email she shared with 9th Street Journal. 

In 2014, her questions came up in a more public way when the city held a virtual town hall to discuss increasing city property tax rates to pay for voter-approved debt and public safety spending. 

Interested residents were asked to submit their questions for the town hall via email or twitter, so Cobb sent an inquiry to former assistant director of Budget and Management Services, John Allore, asking why there was a need for an increase when “so much of taxpayer funds were going to public safety.”

Former mayor Bill Bell told attendees that public safety is a combination of many departments. “I constantly remind others that it’s not just a law enforcement piece alone,” he said, adding that the police budget included enough funding to pay the number of officers the department requested.

Don Moffitt, a City Council member at the time, said the city could always do more to keep the public safer and encourage the police to engage with the community more. “Are we doing enough? That’s what you’re asking, and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ We try to hit the balance.”

Graphic by Cameron Oglesby.

(For more information on the city expenditures above, click here for an interactive graphic.)

Cobb said that she gave up on contacting city officials after that, since no one followed up with her about her data. “I just got really discouraged by the responses,” she said. “After a few years of persistent effort, I became disenchanted being a lone seeker.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson was not on the council at the time Cobb brought up her grievances. She told 9th Street Journal that the annual police budget increases this year were largely due to an increase in retirement benefits and an increase in health insurance — things she said the council doesn’t have “much control over.” 

“Even if we never hire another police officer in the city of Durham the cost of employing the police officers that we already have will drive the budget up every year,” she said. 

Bonfield also said that most social services are covered through Durham County’s budget, and can’t simply be switched from public safety to other areas. 

“To say, ‘I don’t want to pay for the police, I just want that money to go to education,’ [is] a  misnomer because that’s not the structure of the way the state of North Carolina is around public services,” Bonfield said. 

Hope for her hometown

While Cobb has continued to save her tax statements, she isn’t as vocal about it as she used to be. She tries to keep the conversation going with her friends and family. She’s also created more artwork centered around guns, drug use and systemic racism, and said she is open to working with the city should they desire art focusing on these concepts for awareness. 

Cobb said it’s “too much” to go out and join protests against police violence at her age, but she supports the effort to pressure cities to defund city police departments. 

The work to evaluate police budgets and responsibilities, which has been a years-long conversation among city officials, is progressing in Durham. The City Council recently launched and funded the Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to figure out how to redistribute police services and funding.

Painting by Andrea Cobb

City officials will look at their recommendations and determine whether they are financially and operationally feasible. Bonfield said that from a budgetary perspective, conversations about police defunding will not end with the task force recommendation. 

“There was an acknowledgment that this wasn’t going to happen overnight and this was an aspiration, not a guarantee,” he said.

Cobb is hopeful that in sharing her tax statements and the observations she’s made, she can help advocate for more clarity from city officials during this time of social unrest, and move towards redistributing police funding.

“My place in Durham’s community is tiny, although I have contributed a lot of artwork for businesses here,” she said. “If I continue to live in Durham, I want to cultivate a bigger purpose.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

How Steve Schewel put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system

On March 13, the nation was just beginning to realize the danger and rapid spread of the coronavirus, but “Les Misérables” was still scheduled to play that night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That made Mayor Steve Schewel uneasy. 

In New York, Broadway was shut down. The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And Schewel had just learned of Durham’s first COVID-19 case. 

The show couldn’t go on in Durham, he thought. 

So Schewel called DPAC’s leaders and asked about their plan. They said the 2,712-seat venue couldn’t close without a government order, which would allow it to get out of contracts without paying damages, according to Schewel. He called people in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, but they weren’t ready to make that call.

Schewel was. 

DPAC leaders wanted to stay open for a couple more shows, Schewel said. But he felt they had to shut down.

Without consulting the City Council, Schewel declared a state of emergency that banned large gatherings effective at 5 p.m. that day, effectively turning off the lights at DPAC. 

“That was the big moment where it all became clear where my role had to change,” Schewel said last week. 

In ordinary times, Durham’s mayor has more ceremonial than actual power. The mayor runs council meetings and makes committee appointments, but in many ways, the city manager actually wields more power.

Yet Schewel’s declaration of emergency, which is allowed under the city’s Code of Ordinances, gave him powers that put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system. Using that authority, plus a keen understanding of county and state politics and a mastery of the media (he is the former publisher of Indy Week), Schewel has taken a firm grip on Durham’s COVID-19 response, issuing an aggressive stay-at-home order and mandating masks before any other North Carolina locality.

“He’s been out front. He’s in the news,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham. “I live in Chapel Hill and I barely know who the mayor is. That’s not true in Durham.”

Unmasking Schewel’s face-covering, other COVID-19 policies 

Schewel’s newfound muscle can be seen in his bold actions to mandate mask-wearing in public. 

After issuing a stay-at-home order for the city March 25, Schewel worked with the county to update the order, the second time requiring Durham residents to wear masks in places such as grocery stores when it’s not possible to have a social distance. 

Working with Wendy Jacobs, chair of the County Board of Commissioners, Schewel’s mask mandate came more than two months before the governor issued a statewide order. Even Mecklenberg County, home to the state’s virus epicenter, Charlotte, waited for the state to require mask-wearing. 

In a reversal from its previous position, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended Americans wear masks in early April, but few jurisdictions required face coverings when Schewel enacted his requirement. 

Since April, the evidence has mounted in that mask mandates make a significant impact in slowing the virus’ spread. A June 1 analysis of 172 studies found face mask use could cause a major reduction in the risk of infection. Most Durhamites wear masks and socially distance properly, Schewel said. 

“I think that was a good call. Everyone’s doing it, even the vice president of the United States,” Schewel said (before Trump wore a mask in public for the first time last week). 

Schewel has filled a leadership vacuum not just locally but also at the national level, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton said. 

“We’re seeing the numbers now go in the wrong direction in many states around the country because of a dearth of national leadership, so many state and local leaders have been left to fend for ourselves in many cases,” Middleton said. “It has placed leaders like Steve Schewel front and center to save our own lives at the municipal level.”

To be fair, Schewel hasn’t done all of this on his own. He has worked closely with Jacobs and has often consulted the City Council and health experts, City Council Member Charlie Reece said. Earlier in the pandemic, Reece said Schewel would talk with him and other Council members every few days. Middleton said Schewel kept the Council well-informed on his decisions with regards to his emergency powers. 

Still, Schewel has been the face of the city.

“Mayor Schewel has also been especially good at making difficult decisions in a clear and direct manner,” Reece said. “He has done a great job with the impossible task of weighing the various needs and interests of all the people of our city, and of charting a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that offers our community the best chance of emerging on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis in the best possible shape.”

How Schewel got Durham on board with his COVID mandates

Schewel, a public policy professor at Duke, has been very strategic in explaining his bold policies.

When he announced the mask mandate, he got videos from Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton that showed them wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same. He knew the coaches were popular role models in the Bull City.

“If this is going to work, voluntary compliance is what’s going to make it work,” Schewel said. “We need to explain to people why it’s important, for them to believe it, and then for them to do it.”

With his messaging on masks, Schewel struck a good balance between personal freedom and people’s responsibility to protect each other, Middleton said. 

“We didn’t turn Durham into a police state making sure people were indoors or social distancing,” Middleton said. “He appealed to our sense of community not just for ourselves but to each other and for one another. We didn’t have to do it with the force of fine or imprisonment and people just complied.”

His actions haven’t been universally popular. Schewel recently got an unsigned letter at his home written in purple marker calling him a “sanctimonious little dictator.” 

“They hurt my feelings when they said I was little!” Schewel quipped. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order also caught the attention of Liz Wheeler, a host on the conservative One America News Network. 

“Now, the lockdown is indefinite. This happens if you give politicians power. They abuse it,” Wheeler tweeted

Schewel says he hears a lot of opinions from across the spectrum. 

“There has been lots of criticism,” Schewel said. “But also I feel a lot of support. Most people in Durham understand the importance of social distancing, face coverings and the actions we’ve taken when we needed to shut down businesses in Durham.”

Middleton is among his supporters. 

“We were fortunate to have a leader whose temperament was led by science and compassion to be making decisions during this time,” Middleton said. “I give him very high marks in what was an impossible situation, where there’s no pamphlet or textbook on how to handle these things.”

Lessons of history

The few modern mayors that have brought strength to Durham’s mayor system have shared several key traits, according to Korstad, the Duke professor who has studied the city’s history. 

One of those traits is charisma and strong networks, shared by Schewel and three others. 

The first was Emanuel Evans, a Democrat who served from 1951 to 1963. The first Jewish mayor of Durham, Evans was able to bring together Black and white labor unions and the white business elite towards desegregation, unlike many other Southern mayors, Korstad said. 

His successor, Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971, also used his strong personality and community ties in support of the Civil Rights movement, Korstad said.

After Grabarek left office, Durham didn’t see a mayor last in office more than four years until Schewel’s predecessor, Bill Bell, took office in 2001. He brought deep ties to Durham after serving on the school board and had been Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Bell had more of a political presence than his predecessors, Korstad said, allowing him to strength ties with Duke, build coalitions and tackle issues like poverty and inequality. 

Schewel follows in the mold of a “strong” Durham mayor in part due to his charisma and deep ties in Durham, but has also brought policy chops to the table. 

A faculty member at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and formerly a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, Schewel brings a deeper level of engagement to policy issues than even Bell, Korstad said, and could handle the city manager role easily.

The Duke alumnus also has another advantage that Bell didn’t always have: a supportive City Council and a strong ally in Jacobs, Korstad said. 

“He’s got a lot of capital. Folks know that he’s invested,” Middleton said. “Even if you disagree with him on policy, there’s no question as to his love for the city. When you’ve built up that reservoir of capital, it’s time like these you can draw on it.”

At top, photo of Steve Schewel by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Durham task force will assess community safety, police funding

Just over a year ago, the grassroots coalition Durham Beyond Policing proposed that Durham launch a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force to help transition some public safety responsibilities — and eventually, funding — away from the police department and towards social services.

The proposal was in limbo until late March, when the council passed bylaws for the task force that outlined broad objectives and set expectations for appointing members.  

Then, the coronavirus pandemic happened, halting any more progress on it. 

But on June 10, as protests against police violence began ramping up in Durham and across the U.S., the city council approved $1 million to officially launch the task force. 

“The renewed interest in the task force was directly tied to spikes in violence here in our city and shootings here in our city,” said Mark-Anthony Middleton, council member representing Durham Ward 2

“I guess George Floyd has sort of put it on steroids now,” he added, referring to the death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said some ideas for Durham’s task force include creating a new City Department of Community Safety that would specialize in the transition away from policing; establishing an Office of Violence Prevention like Minneapolis, which is trying to reduce the risk of community violence; or hiring consultants to communicate with other cities and counties working to reallocate police budgets. 

She said Durham is also moving forward with evaluating police departments to see where there may be opportunities to transfer responsibilities to other agencies, and auditing 911 call systems to begin the redistribution of call responses for non-violent crimes. 

The county, city and the school board will each appoint five people to the task force. Johnson said there are certain requirements for representing community members of diverse ages, races and expertise. For example, the task force must have two people under 25 and at least three people who focus on racial justice

According to the bylaws, members are expected to work together to conduct a “comprehensive review of existing institutional and community-based public safety and wellness resources,” hold three listening sessions in 90 days and make recommendations about how Durham can become safer without using policing, incarceration or other punitive measures. 

Johnson said the $1 million will be used as monthly stipends for task force members as well as for the implementation of the group’s recommendations. The task force is expected to have completed its evaluation and given recommendations within two years of member appointment

“We’ll be relying on the task force to direct the work,” Johnson said, adding that any significant next steps for public safety reform will be decided by the group.

There is no official timeline for appointing members and beginning recommendations. However, Johnson said she is confident it will move forward quickly because of the increased scrutiny of police departments. 

That process is already beginning. On June 25, the school board unanimously voted to support the task force. 

Natalie Beyer, a community volunteer and advocate who is a school board member, told 9th Street Journal that the board hopes to find nominations for the task force from high school principals and equity leaders within the public school system. She added that they will likely announce their choices in August

“I think we can do things better in Durham and I think that’s what this task force could help us imagine,” she said. 

Durham Beyond Policing, which originally proposed the idea, is concerned about whether $1 million is enough to do meaningful work — especially since the city council voted to pass a $70 million police department budget this year. 

“The $1 million felt like an odd sort of consolation prize,” said Durham Beyond Policing organizer Danielle Purifoy. “It just feels like an empty kind of gesture.”

Johnson said the $1 million is just a start. As the task force starts providing recommendations and public safety services are transferred to other departments, she said she anticipates the financial investment to increase. 

Purifoy also raised a concern that some city council members share: Ensuring the task force represents community members most affected by policing.   

Middleton vowed to make sure members are diverse. “It’s absolutely critical to the efficacy of this task force that the people on it are the people that are most impacted by police contact,” he said.

One way to achieve that goal, Purifoy said, is to ensure meeting times accommodate working people and offer fair compensation. 

“We have not placed a strict timeline on this because we felt like there’s going to be a lot of back and forth that we’re going to need to do in order to make sure that the task force is in the best position possible to to do the work that it needs to do,” Purifoy said. 

The task force is part of Durham Beyond Policing’s broader plan to get the city to divest from the current police system and redistribute funding to services that address mental health, homelessness and addiction. 

Finding alternatives “that are going to actually work in the city and be as well-funded and as well-supported as the police” will take time, Purifoy said. “It’s a trade-off between making sure that this is an urgent thing, but also not pushing so fast that we end up with something that won’t work.”

Durham city council members say they’re committed to continuing the debate about how communities should spend money instead of policing. 

Middleton wrote in an op-ed recently that it would be irresponsible for the city to immediately cut police funding without first gradually transitioning services to other departments. 

“My belief is that if the initiatives have the expected impacts there will be an almost naturally occurring defunding effect as the mission of the police department is fine-tuned and right-sized,” he wrote.

Johnson, who is also pushing for gradual defunding, said this work has to “create the space for these kinds of conversations in our community around how we stay safe, around what the most effective ways to stay safe are and about how we can do things differently.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Top photo: Artwork by Sonofsimba. Photo by Henry Haggart.

Durham officials say they prioritize recycling amid budget shortfalls, pandemic

Since China banned imports of most plastics and other recycled materials from the U.S. in 2018, cities and towns have been scrambling to figure out how to process a massive amount of recyclables — and it’s costing them a lot of money. 

In North Carolina, cities like Lincolnton, Greensboro and Pinebluff have discontinued or limited their curbside recycling programs due to cost or contamination from food waste or trash. While Durham has lost money due to the ban, the city hasn’t changed what material it accepts or limited pick-ups and has weathered the changes relatively well. 

Recyclables are still picked up from residential curbsides, sorted, packaged and transported to Raleigh, where Sonoco Recycling — the company the city contracts with — processes and sells the materials to places like steel mills and glass processors.

Recently, though, the coronavirus pandemic has strained Durham’s recycling system even more. Sonoco’s operations have slowed, and the city’s recycling budgets have taken a hit. 

Despite the challenges, and the expectations that next year could cost the city more money, Durham still plans to invest in its recycling program to keep it afloat. City officials say they’re also interested in more programs to reduce waste in general. 

“We want to encourage residents to be environmentally responsible,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson.

Industry ebbs and flows 

Durham picks up an average of 1,450 tons of recycled items from curbsides each month. The recycling industry has its ups and downs every few years depending on who buys the materials, according to Wayne Fenton, assistant director of solid waste operations for the city of Durham.

In 2019, Johnson told 9th Street Journal that the city was able to foot the cost of recycling because of millions of dollars in budget surpluses from property taxes and tourism increases. “There’s definitely some wiggle room in the budget,” she said at the time. 

Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, tourism and sales taxes decreased and that wiggle room was lost. 

“We are anticipating revenue shortfalls now, due to COVID,” Johnson said in June. 

Durham has seen a net expense of about $472,000 from recycling so far this fiscal year — a loss that officials expect to worsen because China’s scrap import ban is expected to go into full effect by the end of 2020

Net revenues and losses from recycling in Durham. Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Brian Risinger, director of corporate communications and investor relations at Sonoco, said that while Sonoco Recycling and Durham were losing money from recycling services before the pandemic, it has stressed the market even more.

“The business model across the United States has been built around selling collected material into some kind of aftermarket, with the idea that if the material was in demand and commanded a certain value it would offset the cost for municipalities to run recycling programs and cover the costs of operations for companies like Sonoco,” he said in an email. “Now you add COVID-19 into the mix.” 

Recyclables can be a form of profit for the city, depending on demand for certain materials like glass or plastic.

For instance, Jim Reingruber, assistant director for the budgeting side of Durham solid waste management, said the value of some materials has improved during the pandemic. Since people are ordering more deliveries instead of going out, cardboard has “really seen a big increase in value,” he said.

The National Waste and Recycling Association has stated that as waste piles up, recycled materials will need to be diverted into landfills. But Durham officials don’t want that to happen. Fenton said the city is incentivized to keep recycling because Durham pays $42.50 for every ton of trash thrown in the landfill. 

“I always remind everybody that we lose money when we put trash in the ground,” Fenton said. “So when it goes to the landfill, that’s not free.” 

The values by recycled material type. (OCC is Old Corrugated Containers, or cardboard). Image courtesy Jim Reingruber

Protecting sanitation workers

While their overall operations haven’t changed much during the pandemic, parts of Durham’s recycling system have felt the effects. The city and Sonoco say they are trying to keep workers safe. Sanitation workers are essential frontline workers during the pandemic and at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.  

Fenton said he is not aware of any reported COVID-19 cases within the curbside pick up crews in Durham. However, it has been an issue in the state: The NC Public Service Workers Union said in March that union members were concerned for their safety and health after a Raleigh sanitation worker died from complications related to COVID-19.

The city has taken some precautions, including restricting the size of materials picked up curbside to limit the number of sanitation workers in a truck at once. They’ve also limited the number of vehicles out collecting at a time and have provided masks and gloves to all employees, Fenton said. 

Risinger said that Sonoco has dedicated a significant amount of time, communication and training to employees to ensure hand washing, social distancing and consistent use of personal protective equipment. 

“Very early on as a company we adopted CDC and World Health Organization guidelines with respect to worker safety and operations across our entire global organization,” Risinger said. 

A waste-free vision for the future

Even with some economic losses for the city, Johnson said that “moving away from funding recycling services would be the wrong choice environmentally.” 

But she is open to supporting circular economy projects, which include reusable to-go containers or the redistribution of recyclable materials directly back to retailers. Johnson highlighted one pilot project, The ReCirculation Project with nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham, which, according to its website, hopes to prove “that an entirely new kind of recycling is possible” by running a system that sanitizes recyclable materials and reuses them as they are, rather than running them through a processing plant to repurpose them. 

The organization has also been working with restaurants and Durham schools to push “Green to Go” container systems that reduce waste by encouraging people to use plastic to-go containers when dining out. Duke University officially rolled out a similar program last year. 

Johnson noted that the next step would be additional research to figure out how something like this could be scaled city-wide. She also reiterated that the city plans to prioritize recycling for the foreseeable future.  

“I would say there are opportunities to look at circular economy initiatives that might help save some  money and some recyclables from going into the waste stream,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that will cancel our recycling program; I think that there would be a lot of other things on the chopping block before we get to that point.”

Top photo: A recycling bin in downtown Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart. 

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

Despite calls for radical change, City Council funds the police department

For the second time this month, frustration and outrage over police misconduct against Black people dominated a Durham City Council meeting on Monday.

Council members reported receiving thousands of emails demanding that they defund the police department. Dozens of community members spoke at their virtual meeting urging the same thing.

Despite repeating their support for reforming the city’s police department, city council members unanimously passed the city’s $502 million 2020-2021 budget, which includes $70 million for the police department, a 5% increase from last year.

That doesn’t mean change isn’t coming, they stressed.

Before that vote, council members passed the Durham City Council Statement on Community Health and Safety, which commits the city council to continue the process to “transform policing” in Durham.

Written primarily by Mayor Steve Schewel and Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, the statement calls for reforming the Durham Police Department’s use-of-force policies.  It also requires an analysis of 911 calls to identify police activities, such as responding to mental health crises, that other city departments could handle.

The statement pledges $1 million to fund a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force. Johnson championed the body last year as a means to research and present proposals for alternative community safety measures.

Schewel and Johnson emphasized that $1 million was not the only amount elected officials will commit to new community safety measures. 

“A million dollars is a down-payment on the work we need to do to be transforming community safety in Durham,” Schewel said.

That amount was too low, argued two council members, Mark-Anthony Middleton, who represents Ward 2, and DeDreana Freeman, who represents Ward 1.

“I think the million, even as an initial down payment, the pure power of the symbolism of it is just not enough,” Middleton said.

He criticized what he felt was the council’s reluctance to commit at least $2 million to exploring measures, such as universal basic income, which he says would help reduce crime by addressing poverty, a root cause.

“I think we have an opportunity to literally transform the budgetary culture of our city and be a beacon for the rest of the world,” he added. “Do you want to put police out of business? Let’s start spending real money on those things that will put them out of business.”

Middleton noted that the city council spent $2.4 million in 2018 on the Durham Participatory Budgeting initiative spearheaded by Johnson.

“Some of us fought like hell for $2 million for participatory budgeting, and 60% of the voters were white,” Middleton said. “We need to fight like hell now to send the right message for the folk that are dying right now.”

Council member Freeman said she would have preferred a figure closer to $11 million.

“It’s almost like we’re saying that these Black lives are worth a million dollars,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

Johnson, Reece, and Caballero campaigned last fall on a joint platform that included addressing police brutality and developing new community safety institutions. They have favored decreasing the police budget and reducing the number of officers while supporting community-led task forces to create proposals for community safety. 

While Freeman and Middleton have also supported calls for police reform, on Monday they emphasized the continuing need for policing due to what they say are unacceptable levels of violent crime affecting lower-income neighborhoods in Durham.

Freeman and Middleton also questioned the need for a task force to investigate solutions that they said the city council and community already understand. 

“I don’t need the task force to tell me that mentally ill people don’t need people with guns being the primary responder,” Middleton said. “We can move on that now. And we can start preparing the groundwork now for a budgetary revolution.”

Freeman emphasized that some in Durham are alarmed by campaigns to defund the police.

“The people I speak to in the community have a very different understanding of what that means and how it’s going to impact their lives,” Freeman said. “There’s a whole lot of folks that we are scaring this evening, and we have to be mindful of the fact that they are still residents in this community, and they deserve to be represented.”

Approval of the statement passed 4 to 2, with Middleton and Freeman voting no.

The passionate discussion took place immediately after a heated public commenting session where almost 50 people addressed the council about the city’s proposed budget.

Noting that a large number of people wanted to speak, Schewel limited comments to those who pre-registered, giving each one minute. That angered several community members who criticized the council during their remarks. Others voiced their complaints in a virtual chatroom.

Of those able to make comments, 35 spoke against the budget, demanding that the city council defund the city’s police department. That is something included in an alternative budget proposed by Durham Beyond Policing, a coalition of local activist groups.

Some speakers expressed outrage that council members were considering any increase in police funding at a time people are protesting across the county against police violence directed at Black people.

“How dare you — at a time like this — give $70 million, a 5% increase, to cops when cities are burning in rage and mourning across the country,” said Erin Carson, a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “Our city workers’ wages and our vital programs are frozen, but the police never miss a cent while delivering nothing.”

Others emphasized what they felt was the community’s desire to have police funding redistributed to other services. “To say defund the police, we’re just saying give the people back our money, and that’s what we’re asking for now,” said Mabelle Segrest, a resident.

Four people spoke in favor of passing the budget as it was drafted. Sheila Huggins, who represented Friends of Durham, a moderate political action group focused on public safety, asked council members to commit to working with residents on a “comprehensive plan for community policing”.

Middleton stressed that approving the budget did not preclude advancing police reforms.

“This budget is increasing the police budget, full stop. It’s not buying tanks, it’s not buying tear gas, it’s not hiring more officers to be on the street. But it is going up,” said Middleton. “Because inflation happens. Things happen.”

This year’s budget, rewritten after considerable revenue losses during the coronavirus pandemic, canceled raises for city employees. Reece explained that he supported the budget because he says it avoids further layoffs, preserves essential city services, and safeguards city finances in case revenues continue to decrease.

Reece noted that the thousands of emails he received asking to transform public safety and policing was the most he had ever gotten for any city council matter. Still, he said he felt more dialogue and understanding were needed. “There are lots of folks in Durham who have a hard time imagining a Durham beyond policing,” he said.

With the budget issues seemingly settled, the city council meeting moved onto seemingly less contentious topics such as community development grants. But a public hearing on that matter provided another opportunity for comment from audience members.

“You don’t have the moral courage to take a very small step toward addressing the centuries-old damage that’s been done to our community at the hands of government,” said Donald Hughes, who had earlier spoken in favor of the Durham Renewal Project, a budget proposal by activist group Other America Movement Durham calling for more spending on community services. 

“Before there was COVID-19, I want to remind you again, there was COVID-1619,” he said, referring to the date frequently linked to the start of slavery in North America.

At top: Members of the Other America Movement have set up camp in front of the city police headquarters downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart

Outdoor fitness classes, real estate open houses allowed to resume

The city of Durham and Durham County are continuing to move forward with reopening plans during the coronavirus pandemic. An amendment to the “safer-at-home” order issued on May 28 will allow real estate open houses and outdoor fitness classes to resume starting Friday. 

Gyms can hold outdoor fitness classes of up to 25 people, with recommendations to keep 10 feet of distance between participants and make sure the areas are sanitized. Realtors can now hold open houses for up to 10 people, although officials said in a press release they “strongly discourage” this activity. 

“We appreciate the active engagement and participation of both our realtors and our fitness centers in our Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force Roundtables,” Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners, said in the release. “Like many of our business sectors, they are taking the lead to develop and implement industry best practices putting their clients and customers safety first.”

These changes come against a backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases in Durham County. Data reported by the Durham County Public Health Department shows a clear upward trajectory in cases for the first week-and-a-half of June. As of June 12, Durham County has approximately 2,470 confirmed cases — up from 1,677 on the first of the month

A similar spike in cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is taking place across the state. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human services reported 1,768 new cases in North Carolina on Friday, which surpassed the previous largest single-day increase of 1,370 cases on June 6. This brings the total number of confirmed cases in North Carolina to 41,249 cases. 

A social distancing sign in a Durham park. Photo by Lyndsey Gilpin

“As we continue to re-open activities in our community, it is more important than ever we all continue to practice the 3 W’s- Wearing face coverings, Waiting 6 feet and Washing our hands to keep ourselves, our loved ones and each other safe and healthy,” Jacobs said in the release. 

This amendment means it’s up to real estate companies and fitness center owners to decide if they want to host larger groups. 

Steven Squires, senior broker for Costello Real Estate and Investments, regularly conducts business in Durham County. He told 9th Street in an emailed statement that he recommends real estate professionals who plan to show homes or host open houses take a “one in, one out” approach so that no more than 10 people are in the home at a time, and that all parties should wear personal protective equipment and limit touching surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches and plumbing fixtures.

He also said that he is holding off for the time being on hosting open houses based on his “own comfort level with the pandemic.” 

“Considering there are so many other methods of advertising at our disposal, I just don’t feel like it’s necessary to host events where an increased level of exposure is possible,” he said. “I do plan to resume hosting open houses on my own listings in the near future, but only when I feel more comfortable doing so and my clients are on board with it as well.” 

Cameron Oglesby contributed reporting to this story. 

Q&A with mayor centers on police funding, COVID-19

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s virtual Q&A with faculty and staff of Duke University’s public policy school on Wednesday offered a glimpse into how the city is handling police violence protests and the coronavirus pandemic.  

“We had last week in Durham, verelly powerful forceful protests, eloquent protests . . . about, not just the murder, the heinous inhuman and cold murder of George Floyd,” Schewel said, “but also the racism in our system that persists.”

Nearly 100 people attended the hour-long online event. Duke faculty and staff, as well as the public, submitted questions via Zoom for Sanford School of Public Policy Dean Judith Kelley to ask the mayor. 

Much of the conversation revolved around policing, including the department’s funding and potential reforms. The mayor said that last week, he signed a pledge to review and reform policies around police officers’ use-of-force within the next 90 days. 

“I’m happy to say that our police chief has already responded to the eight particular tactics that were highlighted in that [pledge],” he said.

Many Durham residents are calling on city officials, including the mayor, to defund the police department. But Schewel said the police budget will instead be increasing by just over $1 million dollars. In 2019, the police department asked for an estimated $69 million and spent $67 million; this year, the city has a proposed police budget of $70 million. 

“That million dollars is not adding any police officers,” he said, assuring attendees that the money will pay for state-mandated pensions and mandatory raises for officers.

Kelley asked Schewel if he felt Durham police were where they needed to be in the community. Schewel responded that Durham has spent years “reforming the way our police operate.” 

He added that police have and will continue to respect demonstrators’ right to protest, adopt non-confrontational tactics and monitor if traffic stops are made because of racial profiling.

“We have racial equity training for all our officers, we have de-escalation training for all of our officers, we have crisis intervention training,” he said. “Our police department is far from perfect . . . but we are putting in a lot of effort and have put in a lot of effort over the last few years to reform our police force.”

The city also plans to establish alternatives to policing, he said, so officers are not called in for something better handled by medical services, mental health services or social workers.

He did not offer any details about how specific programs would work or be funded, or say if the city will reduce the number of police officers over time.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. Credit: Wikimedia photo

The Q&A also covered voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Schewel said it was up to the Board of Elections and the state to decide how to handle voting processes in November’s general election. 

“Right now, there isn’t quite a strategy,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are thinking about it, and I have a lot of confidence. But we’re going to need good guidance from the state.”

Last year, the North Carolina legislature passed a law making it harder to request absentee ballots, which is being challenged in court. Schewel said he’s worried about residents having easy absentee voting options and safe, quick in-person polling stations.

“Voter suppression is real, and I think that our legislature, unless they agree to have mailed to every voter an application for an absentee ballot, I think that that will be suppressing the vote,” Schewel said.

Other attendees asked about the city’s COVID-19 response and the reopening of Durham schools. Schewel said he wasn’t sure what would happen in the fall, but is concerned the continued increase of cases in Durham could lead to a resurgence of the virus.

One program he emphasized was an effort to address unequal access to remote learning during the pandemic. Durham Public Schools will spend $8 million providing Chromebooks to students and installing wireless hotspots around the city to help ensure every child has access to digital learning.

Throughout the conversation, Schewel responded to many questions with “I don’t know.” He reiterated that some decisions — especially those about the pandemic — depend on state lawmakers. 

“As we all know we’re in an incredibly difficult time in our nation,” he said, “It’s a hard time to be mayor, I’ll tell you that.”

McDougald Terrace crisis was decades in the making

Health threats from carbon monoxide leaks plunged hundreds of McDougald Terrace residents into a crisis last winter.

After Durham County EMS Assistant Chief Lee VanVleet noticed an unusual number of EMS calls linked to the hazardous gas, nearly 900 residents were evacuated from Durham’s oldest and largest public housing complex. 

Beginning in late December, inspectors found stoves, furnaces, and water heaters emitting excess amounts of the invisible, odorless gas, which can be lethal. 

These substandard conditions didn’t come out of the blue. McDougald Terrace failed federal inspections in 2019, scoring a dismal 31 out of 100. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development marks scores lower than 60 as failing grades.

Exposed electrical wires and ventilation problems, including misaligned chimneys and faulty ventilation systems in water heaters, were among 153 health and safety deficiencies detailed in the federal Housing and Urban Development inspection report. Inspectors also found mold and roaches in apartments at McDougald, which was built to house black tenants in 1954, when racial segregation was still sanctioned across Durham.

Ashley Canady, resident council president at McDougald Terrace, and other tenants marched in the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Unity March and Rally in January. 9th Street Journal file photo by Corey Pilson

Total costs for putting residents up in hotels, providing them with stipends and completing emergency repairs at McDougald Terrace are expected to reach at least $9 million, the Durham Housing Authority announced this month.

After news broke that parts of McDougald Terrace were unsafe, Durham Housing Authority and city officials immediately blamed inadequate funding from HUD. They claimed that the federal government failed to give the authority the money needed to keep Durham’s public housing communities in good repair.

Federal funding for the Durham Housing Authority has actually been on the rise in recent years. In 2017, the authority received a total of approximately $32 million in federal awards. In 2018, awards totaled about $34.5 million, and this funding rose to over $35 million in 2019. 

While federal funding has technically increased each year for the past three years, the authority has not been receiving enough funds relative to their needs, a DHA spokesman said. 

Researchers and HUD officials have confirmed that federal grants across the country have not been enough for housing authorities to keep traditional public housing well maintained. In 2011, HUD estimated that the deferred capital needs in public housing amounted to nearly $26 billion and that number has only continued to grow.  

Despite that, housing authorities in other North Carolina cities operating in the same challenging funding environment manage to keep their properties in better shape than Durham does.

Public housing in Durham has failed significantly more HUD inspections than has public housing in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro. Since 2015, Charlotte has failed only one property inspection and Durham has failed 13. Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro failed no HUD inspections in the past five years, according to available data

An early aerial view of sprawling McDougald Terrace, built in 1954. Source: Durham Housing Authority

What explains this disparity?

Behind other cities

North Carolina affordable housing experts say some cities were quicker to embrace a private-public-housing hybrid called Rental Assistance Demonstration, frequently called RAD conversion. RAD allows housing authorities to use non-federal public funding and private investment to improve their properties.

Most Durham Housing Authority properties depend on federal grants. Rents paid by tenants with incomes low enough to qualify to live in public housing don’t cover operating costs and upkeep. Before the coronavirus outbreak, DHA reported its residents had average annual incomes of $13,000 a year and average rent paid was $238 a month. 

When a housing authority pursues a RAD conversion project, it can use public money besides HUD funding and private investment to improve authority-owned property. A share of the housing can be rented at market rates.

Durham has converted only three out of its 17 properties to this model. Last fall, Durham voters passed a $95 million housing bond that will help DHA convert four more public housing communities and the DHA office building. Some of these plans call for tearing down what’s there now and building new housing.

The Greensboro Housing Authority, on the other hand, has converted all but one of its public housing communities to RAD properties. This allowed the authority to leverage more private capital to maintain these properties.

RAD conversion does offer housing authorities new sources of funds. But housing authorities in North Carolina that have not transitioned entirely to the RAD model still keep their rental housing in better shape than Durham does, according to HUD inspection reports.

Even without the extra cash that RAD conversion provides, Raleigh and Winston-Salem had no properties that failed their most recent HUD inspections. Durham had seven in 2019. 

The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem takes steps Durham does not. It hired a company called United States Inspection Group to conduct property inspections that mirror the federal HUD inspections, said Kevin Cheshire, the authority’s executive director and general counsel.

The company specializes in inspecting and mitigating issues prior to HUD’s evaluations. This helps the authority keep up with needed repairs and earn high scores when HUD inspectors arrive, Cheshire said.

The Raleigh Housing Authority also takes extra steps to maintain their public housing despite funding challenges. Over the last few decades, that authority demolished and rebuilt its three largest properties, using Hope VI grant funds for two of the projects.

The redevelopment of these properties has helped keep repair costs lower for the agency in the long run,” Raleigh Housing Authority special assistant Laura McCann explained during an email correspondence.

The Durham Housing Authority, which is expected to receive more than $34 million in federal funding this year, has no such success story. And there’s no one place to pin the blame, according to observers inside and outside the organization.

“We’re seeing in Durham the consequences of years of problems,” said Samuel Gunter, Executive Director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition.

Carl Newman, general counsel for the Durham Housing Authority, says that RAD conversion is Durham’s best hope for improving its public housing. RAD conversion has already been completed at Morreene Road, Damar Court, and Laurel Oaks, but much more work is needed.

No McDougald makeover

RAD conversion is at the heart of DHA’s planned redevelopment of five of its properties in downtown Durham. With a share of a $95 million affordable housing bond that Durham voters approved last fall, and other additional funds, DHA plans to invest more than $58 million in redevelopment. 

The focus is on five properties in and near downtown, including J.J. Henderson, Oldham Towers, Liberty Street, Forest Hill Heights, and DHA’s office building on East Main Street. DHA aims to create a mix of subsidized housing reserved for low-income residents and market-rate rentals at each site.

McDougald Terrace is notably missing from this redevelopment list. At first glance this appears puzzling, as McDougald is arguably the DHA property most in need of redevelopment.

But Mayor Steve Schewel shortly after the housing bond passed last fall said there are economic reasons to wait on rebuilding McDougald. The city’s largest public housing property is over 65 years old, making it a challenge to renovate. “It’s good to get experience creating these mixed income communities on a smaller scale first,” the mayor said. 

One downtown redevelopment plan calls for replacing Durham Housing Authority offices with housing available to renters with low incomes and others able to pay market rates. 9th Street Journal graphic by Cameron Oglesby

In order to complete these redevelopments, DHA is relying not only on funds from the affordable housing bond but also on private investment. And private investors need to be convinced they’re putting their money into something worthwhile.

“You have to give confidence to people that you’re going to succeed,” Schewel said, “and the best place in Durham to gain that confidence is Main Street, and downtown. We know that private investors will come there, and we know that market rate renters in these communities will want to live there.”

After finding success on Main Street, city and DHA officials can then move on to more challenging projects like McDougald, Schewel said.

“We’re going to do RAD conversion, because actually that’s the only solution. It just isn’t a quick one. Had we started this project 10 years ago…,” said Newman, his voice trailing off for a few seconds. “But, here we are.”

There has been significant turnover in management at the Durham Housing Authority in recent years, Newman said. CEO Anthony Scott started with the authority in 2016. “The people who could have made a different decision 10 years ago, most of them don’t work here anymore,” Newman said.

Living with the legacy

Gunter, at the statewide affordable housing organization, said the federal government’s history of underinvestment in public housing shoulders some of the blame for conditions at McDougald Terrace.

This is what it costs when you have spent decades under-investing,” Gunter said, “This is the bill coming due. It really is a no-win situation. And the folks that get screwed are the residents” 

A rear view of a dwelling at McDougald Terrace, the city’s oldest pubic housing complex. 9th Street Journal photo by Corey Pilson
Shimey Harvey visited her McDougald Terrace apartment regularly while she and her son stayed at a local motel. 9th Street Journal file photo by Corey Pilson

During the evacuation of McDougald, the mostly women and children residents were relocated to 16 hotels throughout Durham County, displaced from their kitchens, school bus stops, neighbors and, sometimes, practical transportation to jobs.

McDougald resident Shimey Harvey and her son had lived in her apartment for about two years before the evacuations began. She lived with frequent headaches before the evacuation, she said.

When Harvey was relocated to Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, her headaches stopped, she said. She was safe from carbon monoxide leaks, but her world had been turned upside down. As a result of the disruption, she was forced to quit her job, she said.

In a scramble to get people back to their homes, work at McDougald was exempted from  Durham’s stay-at-home order intended to decrease the spread of coronavirus in March. Residents, including Harvey, returned to the sprawling brick complex near North Carolina Central University in May.

Back at home in McDougald, carbon monoxide leaks are no longer a threat, Harvey said, but her living space is still in poor condition. “I still have mold in my apartment. All they fixed was the appliances,” she said.

Harvey blames Durham Housing Authority for the mess at McDougald. “All these years, if certain things had been updated sooner, these problems wouldn’t have gotten so bad,” she said, “My heater looks like it’s from the beginning of time.”

Although Harvey would like to move with her son to a safer home, this is not the right time.

She hasn’t been able to search for another job while coping with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, including public schools closing. Home-schooling her son without a laptop or teaching experience have been among the hardships, she said. 

She won’t be turning to the Durham Housing Authority for help of any kind. “What are they gonna do for me?” she said, “They have a lot of problems to deal with, I’m just a small nut.”

At top: After a months-long evacuation, McDougald Terrace residents have returned to their aged public housing community.  Photo by Corey Pilson

Durham leaders share pain, hope as protests grow

The agenda for Monday’s Durham City Council virtual meeting listed 27 items, but the topic that weighed most heavily on everyone present did not appear by name.

On the screen, five faces stared straight ahead, elected leaders of a city relieved that a weekend of national protests had been peaceful within Durham, but also troubled by the violent confrontations between police and participants in nearby Raleigh and across the country.

Council and community members took turns sharing stories of pain and hope in the wake of the death of George Floyd, transforming a virtual meeting into a space where their collective emotional toll surfaced and was acknowledged.

“I just wanted to say a few words tonight about the experience that we’re having this past week, in our country,” began Jillian Johnson, mayor pro-tem and co-founder of Durham For All, a multiracial political organizing group.

“As a child in the 1980s, my mother warned my younger brother not to play with toy guns so the police wouldn’t think he had a real gun and shoot him,” she said. “Decades later, the only thing that’s really changed is that the ubiquity of phone cameras and live streaming technologies brought the reality of this experience to a new and broader audience.”

Durham needs to come together to push for change as a community, she said, listing what she views as critical problems: an expanding city police budget, racial disparities in traffic stops and a civilian oversight board she said lacked authority to enforce changes in policing practices.

Johnson urged redirecting the city’s spending priorities to community safety approaches “outside of policing,” though she said that “I want to appreciate the work of our police chief C.J. Davis and her staff in avoiding needless conflicts with demonstrators over the last few days.”

Unlike the police response in Raleigh, which used tear gas, rubber bullets, and riot gear in confrontations with protestors over the weekend, Durham officers did not confront people protesting downtown. Instead they closed traffic on nearby streets and kept a distance.

Not that protests were over in Durham. At 2 pm Monday, a group of over 50 people led by local artist Skip Gibbs had blocked Highway 147 near downtown, at South Alston Avenue. The group demanded a meeting with the Durham Police Chief and Durham County Sheriff about preventing police brutality. Within an hour, both public officials had called the organizers and agreed to a meeting on Friday, and the group moved off the highway.

An hour before the council meeting was set to start at 7 pm, a crowd of several hundred, including students and families with children, started assembling in front of the Carolina Theater downtown. The “#DefundThePolice” demonstration, organized by the Durham chapter of Black Youth Project 100, a youth-led group, walked through downtown toward the Durham County Detention Facility. City police followed, closing off streets to traffic around the crowd, which stretched for several blocks.

With a wavering voice, council member DeDreana Freeman explained that she would likely be off camera at points due to her emotions after the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin, which medical examiners have labeled a homicide.

“I do want to uplift just how hard it is to come face to face with this … uninvited mental health trauma,” Freeman said. “There are no words. I can feel it in my bones, I can feel it all throughout my body. The trauma I’m carrying, it’s, it’s just, in my DNA, and it is the reason I do what I do, how I do it.” 

Johnson warned about “paramilitaries and provocateurs” potentially entering Durham and other cities to provoke conflicts with the police. Mark-Anthony Middleton, a council member and pastor, urged city residents to be vigilant and to “keep our eyes open for those who don’t really love us, who don’t care about the Floyd family, who don’t share our tears, but are here to co-opt and preempt us.” 

“This is Durham,” Middleton added. “We know the difference between a confederate monument and a mom-and-pop store. We don’t need anyone bringing any more bull to the Bull City.” 

Council member Charlie Reese pointed to what he said is the foundation of the police violence being protested across the country.

“This is an epidemic that is, of course, the natural outgrowth of America’s original sins of racism and white supremacy,” he said. “It’s the result of a rampaging, out of control flavor of capitalism that enlists police violence as a means to protect private property, all too often punishing small acts like attempted forgery with the death of those alleged to have committed it.”

Council member Javiera Caballero concurred. “We have seen the response in cities across this country due to the militarization of the police. In Durham, we have tried to take a different approach,” Caballero said. 

Caballero also praised Police Chief Davis. “She’s done a remarkable job changing the culture of Durham’s police department,” she said.

However, two of the three community members who spoke during the meeting had called in to voice opposition to increasing funding for the police department. Danielle Purifoy spoke on behalf of Durham Beyond Policing, a local network of activists opposed to policing. In opposing a 5% increase in the $70 million budget for the police, she pointed to the costly evacuation of McDougald Terrace, a public housing complex plagued by unsafe conditions, as well as the high number of evictions in Durham and the $9 million budget shortfall the city faces due to the pandemic.

“My question is what else needs to happen for us to prioritize serving people over punishing people?” she said. 

After council members spoke, Mayor Steve Schewel commended their “fantastic, fantastic words” and read the North Carolina Mayors’ Statement on the Murder of George Floyd, which he wrote. “The words are important, and we know we need to do the work along with it,” he added.

As the city council meeting stretched on past 8 pm, the #DefundThePolice demonstration had gathered outside the detention facility, chanting up to inmates who knocked on the windows in response. “Same story every time. Being black is not a crime,” they chanted in unison. 

In the setting sun, sounds of cheering, yelling, and clapping filled the evening air.

Above: A screenshot of a moment during Durham City Council’s virtual meeting Monday when council member DeDreana Freeman spoke.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Skip Gibbs’ last name.

 

Durham lightens stay-at-home order but sticks with stricter response

A new amendment loosens Durham’s stay-at-home order, but keeps local coronavirus-related limits stricter than rules imposed by the state. 

The update, in effect at 5 p.m. today, is the fifth version of the city and county’s joint order since the coronavirus outbreak struck.

The latest changes attempt to clarify how rules apply in Durham, Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Commision, told 9th Street. “We’re trying to simplify things and make this less confusing for people,” Jacobs said. 

One simplification made to Durham’s stay-at-home order is the removal of its expiration date. The order’s previous four versions included deadlines compelling the county and city government to reinstate an order every few weeks.

With the due date gone, an emergency order will remain in place until it is rescinded or modified.  

What’s looser?

In many ways, this update eases the Durham stay-at-home order’s strictest regulations. 

In line with Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 8 executive order, Durham leaders have raised the number of people who may gather to 10. The previous versions of the order limited gatherings to five. 

Durham’s new update also follows Cooper’s lead by allowing for larger religious gatherings or protests to take place outside so long as those participating socially distance. 

The amendment ends the local classification of businesses as “essential” or “non-essential.” While some previously non-essential businesses may be able to re-open, many are still closed by the state’s order, which still shutters bars, concerts and other live performances, and more.

Friday’s update also allows potential home buyers to view occupied houses in person and permits businesses to provide employees with boxed lunches.

What’s stricter than the state limits? 

Durhamites incapable of social distancing, such as those shopping or working in a store, are still required to wear protective face masks. And business owners must continue to conduct basic health screenings at the beginning of every employee’s shift. 

Funerals in Durham will be limited to 25 people, while the state  order allows up to 50 people to attend funerals. 

The amendment also creates new regulations for child care. Child care facilities in Durham are now required to keep supervised children in consistent groups that are isolated from other children.

The state’s order preempts Durham’s in regulating retail stores. Cooper’s May 8 order allows retail stores to open with restrictions, requiring them to ensure space for social distancing and setting maximum occupancy at 50 percent. The city and county cannot raise or lower that limit. 

Why and What’s Next? 

“What this indicates is that what we’re doing works,” Jacobs said, pointing to low community spread rates in Durham, where most lethal cases of COVID-19 have been detected in sites where people are confined in close quarters, including  living sites such as the Butner Federal Correctional Complex and longterm living facilities. Such facilities accounted for 33 of Durham County’s 37 coronavirus-related deaths as of Friday morning. 

Going forward, the county and city will follow the state’s lead on reopening, Jacobs said. Durham will look to North Carolina’s guidance on best practices for testing, tracing and PPE.

Durham will also seek direction from the city and county’s joint “Recovery and Renewal” task force, which includes  local health professionals, religious leaders, business owners and other community members.

“We’re looking to the work of the task force to guide our next steps,” Jacobs said. 

The task force had its first meeting Friday morning, remotely of course. As he and Jacobs opened up the conversation, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who sported the city’s flag as his Zoom meeting background, announced that Durham’s rate of doubling for COVID-19 cases is now greater than 50 days.  

“That’s good. We’re doing well. But we have to continue to do well,” Schewel said. 

There’s one downside to success, the mayor said. Many Durhamites don’t have immunity, he pointed out, so an outbreak could still spread quickly in Durham. 

Durhamites can go to more places and see more people when they must. But they’d be wise to voluntarily stick with the practice that has helped this community, Jacobs said.

“We still need people to stay at home whenever they can,” she said. 

At top: Duke Health continues to offer drive-up coronavirus virus testing near Duke University Hospital. Photo by Corey Pilson