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Durham County officials juggle coronavirus, cyberattack response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governor yields to hospitals’ call for stay-at-home order

Amidst mounting pressure from the health care industry, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a statewide stay-at-home order Friday to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The measure goes live Monday at 5 p.m. 

“We have to act now in the safest, smartest way while we have the chance to save lives. It is truly a matter of life and death,” Cooper said Friday afternoon.

North Carolina is at least the 24th state to have declared such an order as of Friday afternoon. The state order will take precedence over local orders if they conflict and if local orders are less restrictive, Cooper said. 

“This order may lead to even more hardship and heartache,” Cooper said, acknowledging the huge numbers of people who have lost employment from efforts to stop the coronavirus. “We will not forget people who have lost their livelihoods during this crisis.”

The order is similar to others nationwide in that it requires people to stay at home unless they leave for approved reasons. Those include trips for essential supplies, for health care, essential work and outdoor exercise. 

Grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants offering takeout, drive-through and delivery only can remain open in the statewide order. It bans gatherings of more than 10 people and calls for social distancing. 

The move comes after hospital lobbying group N.C. Health Care Association wrote to Cooper Monday urging such a policy to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which may prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed by a large influx of COVID-19 cases.

The virus is spreading in North Carolina, although due to limited testing, its true reach here is unknown.

On Monday, the state reported 297 confirmed cases of the virus but by Friday had confirmed nearly 800, Cooper said. The Centers for Disease Control has deemed North Carolina has reached “widespread transmission,” he added. 

Some cities and counties, including Durham and Mecklenburg County, beat Cooper to the punch by implementing their own stay-at-home orders this week. Durham and Mecklenburg counties have among the highest number of confirmed cases in the state.  

Cooper, whose tone was measured during his press conference, said that he hopes people will voluntarily follow the order and remember “the good part of our lives as North Carolinians will return.”

He is asking law enforcement to encourage people to abide by the order, he said. If people “continually and flagrantly” violate the order, the governor stressed, authorities will prosecute. 

“This is a serious order and we want people to follow it,” Cooper said. 

In addition to a $2 trillion federal stimulus package passed by by Congress on  Friday, Cooper has made moves to soften the economic fallout from efforts to control the virus.

The governor expressed concern about how long it might take for federal relief for small businesses and said he wished more money was distributed to states and municipalities.

On the state level, Cooper made unemployment benefits easier to get in a March 17 executive order, a move which has triggered more than 200,000 unemployment claims statewide, most citing the pandemic, he said.

“This order may lead to even more hardship and heartache,” Cooper acknowledged. “ It might mean you’re isolated or you lost your job. That’s difficult, so thank you for doing the right thing.”
 

Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has stopped serving eviction notices and padlocking rental properties in Durham County to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Evictions stopped in Durham days after North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a series of emergency orders pausing nonessential court proceedings and giving sheriffs across the state the ability to postpone some enforcement actions.

A Monday evening statement from Birkhead confirmed that his office has decided to halt eviction service.

“I am suspending the service of these judgments until further notice,” Birkhead said. “Although Chief Justice Beasley’s order does not specifically address this process, it has been interpreted that under that order a suspension would be allowable.”

Beasley’s issued the first order halting nonessential court proceedings in North Carolina on March 13. In a memo two days later, she clarified that her first order included eviction proceedings.

That effectively shut off the flow of new writs of possession — the court orders to evict tenants that have lost to landlords in court. But while new writs stopped coming more than a week ago, dozens already existed. The sheriff’s office estimates around 180 evictions occur in Durham every week.

As of last Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said it was still legally required to serve those pending eviction writs. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that ended up freezing those writs, too. It pushed back the due dates for many filings and “other acts” of the North Carolina courts, including evictions. Under this order, actions due on March 16 or later would now be on time if done by April 17.

Normally, tenants who lose in court have 10 days to file for an appeal. Under Beasley’s order, motions to appeal an eviction ruling are still timely if filed by April 17. That means all eviction cases with original final appeal dates on or after March 16 are postponed.

Last Friday, the office of the Clerk of Durham County Superior Court said it had stopped issuing writs for such cases and recalled all of the writs it had sent throughout that week involving those cases.

Several of the state’s largest counties had determined by Saturday that Beasley’s order also gave them discretion to halt eviction service. Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid lawyer who focuses on eviction defense, said those included Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland.

On Thursday evening, the Durham sheriff’s office indicated it was working to interpret Beasley’s order hours after it came out that day. The office continued to consult with legal teams and the judiciary on Friday.

By the time the sheriff decided to stop serving writs, there may have been none left to serve. Gilbert, who works in the Eviction Diversion program run by Legal Aid and Duke Law’s Civil Justice Clinic, said the pending writs were likely all recalled by the clerk.

“It’s essentially moot,” Gilbert said Monday, before the sheriff issued his statement. “It’s not his authority, because the clerk has started recalling any writ from March 3 or after. That should be and almost certainly is all of the pending writs of possession.”

Clerk of Durham County Superior Court Archie Smith could not be reached Monday evening to clarify whether all pending writs had been recalled. But on Thursday, Smith told The 9th Street Journal he intended to follow the spirit of Beasley’s order.

“The lens from which I will interpret things where I have the option to interpret things will be through public safety, with a focus on limiting social contact for the purpose of limiting the spread of contagion,” Smith said.

Birkhead’s Monday statement said that “no one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders.”

But some evictions may have already occurred amid confusion. According to Gilbert, at least one padlocking occurred on Thursday before Beasley’s order, but after sheriffs in other counties had stopped serving evictions.

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

Durhamites struggling to pay rent will be able to stay in their homes for several weeks, but eviction still looms over them.

“These cases are delayed. They are not dismissed,” Gilbert said, adding that courts are still receiving new eviction filings.

“When this ends, there is going to be a tsunami of evictions,” Gilbert said. “That is going to be aggravated by the fact that so many people in Durham are cost burdened. They are already spending over half their income on rent, and with so many workers losing hours or being unable to work at all, I suspect that whenever this ends, we are going to have a real eviction crisis.”

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

COVID-19 Q&A: Mayor asks residents to keep distance but help each other

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel talked with The 9th Street Journal on Thursday afternoon. This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

What is the most important challenge that Coronavirus is bringing to city government?

Well, I think it’s the same challenge that it’s bringing to our whole society, which is the critical need for social distancing so that we can slow the spread of the virus. That’s got to be the number one job of everything that the government and our community bends its mind to — we have to do that. 

What city services are down, modified and stable?

Most of the major functions of the city are definitely continuing. Fire, police, emergency response, water, sewer, garbage pickup and recycling — those kinds of things.  Some of our services that have to continue and are crucial do present more of a challenge — policing and fire, for example, emergency response, all those things have to continue. We have to try to modify people’s behaviors in order to get the work done as safely as possible. 

A lot of other services can be done online. For example, inspections obviously have to be done in person, but a lot of the prep for that can be done online. So we’ve moved a lot of our work in the city government online so that people can work from home. My assistant is working from home. All the city clerk staff who usually are right outside of my office, they’re working from home.

There are definitely services within the city that we are not performing right now because of the need to socially distance. We canceled our city council meeting that was supposed to be this past Monday. We cancelled our work session on Thursday. Our audit committee is not meeting because unless it’s essential, we’re not going to be gathering in groups.

We are working to find out what the legal basis is for having virtual council meetings. In April we are due to meet again and we would like to virtually if we can. But of course that presents issues of public access. It’s a public meeting, so anybody has the right to come. In terms of the planning, zoning, that area, I know that we’re slowed down. There are also other areas I’m sure, but I just don’t know what they are. 

Do you think that Durham is prepared to respond to this pandemic?

From the city government perspective, we’ll be able to do the things that we do. I do have emergency powers in this situation, and, because this is a true emergency, I had to issue an emergency declaration to close our city facilities including the DPAC, the Carolina Theater, and others for public health purposes. But the things that we do aren’t the most important aspects of this.

The county has the public health authority. They run the Department of Public Health and the public health issues are the most important issues. We have to work closely with the county. Another example is the public schools. That’s also not under the city’s purview. That’s the Board of Education. They made the right decision to close the schools, and then the governor followed up with the statewide school closing. Now there’s a huge effort to feed the schoolchildren. That’s the school system and the Durham Public Schools Foundation.

Duke Health has a huge role here and is very well prepared for this. They’re going to be very ready. So all that is just to say, yeah, we have a role. But there are a lot of other organizations outside of the single player role.

Has last week’s cyber attack affected the city’s response in any way?

Yes. It’s made it harder for people to telecommute because it knocked email out. The vast majority of people in the city have been able to get their email back up, but at the beginning it was a problem. We were exceptionally well backed up. All of our servers were restored within a few days, but the computer virus infected more than 1000 computers, so re-imaging those is taking time. So those things have definitely hindered our ability to have folks successfully telecommute to be able to do their work, but that’s all being worked through. We’re a long way down the road.

What is the city doing to communicate with the many city residents who speak Spanish?

I did a statement yesterday on video and now there’ll be a written version of it. We’re translating that into Spanish. For people without computers, I don’t think that we’re taking any special efforts to try to reach them because everyone is so slammed dealing with the basics of the coronavirus. I think that if you’re without a computer you’re probably missing a lot of the public health messages. 

There is a lot of outreach to homeless people. I’m on a phone call tonight with all the homeless service providers, including healthcare providers. One big concern: Suppose there are homeless people who have the virus and don’t need to be hospitalized but need to be quarantined. There needs to be housing for them. There’s a lot of thinking about how that might occur.

What are some of the big steps you’re taking or thinking about taking to attack this coronavirus and protect the city?

I already shut down the various city facilities, including our recreation centers. We were about to do the restaurant thing. I lobbied the governor really hard to do that, and I’m very glad that the governor made that decision. We would have made that decision locally. I issued an amendment to the emergency declaration that closes fitness clubs, gyms and theaters. 

There’s all the messaging, which is super important — getting it out to people that they need to social distance, and having that messaging be convincing. A lot of people, especially in the younger generation, aren’t doing it. We’re letting people know that that’s not responsible. Younger people can get sick and do get sick, and they do die from the virus. And also it’s not responsible because they can carry it and, even if they’re asymptomatic, pass it on to people in higher risk groups. Young people need to socially distance. It’s critically important. 

Where do you think volunteer help and community effort is most needed?

Feeding the schoolchildren. If I was to say the number one thing people could do right now would be get in touch with the Durham Public Schools Foundation and say that you want to help feed our school children. There’ll be other volunteer efforts needed as well: feeding our elderly, providing childcare for emergency health care workers. 

What do you want to tell Durhamites? 

Listen to my video. The main thing I want to say is that we can make a difference here. We have got to act now, before we look back and regret that we didn’t act soon enough and find out that this virus has ravaged our community. The earlier we act, the more power we have to stop the spread of the virus. Each of us have to act so all of us are safe. 

Mayor Schewel will have a press conference today at 2:30 p.m. in front of City Hall regarding COVID-19 State of Emergency Declaration Amendment. Check for updates on the City of Durham’s response to COVID-19 here

At top: A screen grab from the Mayor Steve Schewel’s video address to Durham residents. 

 

With concert cancellations, Durham venues livestream local artists

If you had tickets to a concert in the next few months, you’ve likely gotten an email that it’s been postponed or canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Durham music fans can still access some live shows even while confined at home. 

Rebecca Newton, President and CEO of the Carolina Theatre of Durham, is starting a “Virtual Listening Room” this month in response to the flood of live music cancellations. 

Co-created with the manager of the Wake Forest Listening Room Mike Allen, the project aims to keep local artists afloat by live streaming their performances. 

The Virtual Listening Room is still in its organizing stages, but the first show is scheduled for Thursday, March 26. For $12, viewers can tune in to see local bands Violet Bell and Al Riggs livestreamed from the Blue Note Grill (the bands are playing separate time slots to avoid contact). Newton and Allen will not be taking a cut of the proceeds.

Newton expects to have four high quality cameras working simultaneously. It will be an “Austin City Limits kind of quality,” she said.  

A screenshot from Country Soul Songbook’s performance at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

Both Newton and Allen emphasized that musicians who do not have another job besides playing live shows could have an especially hard time making ends meet since restaurants and bars in North Carolina have shut down for all but take-out service. Many other cities and states have enacted similar executive orders to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19.

Lizzy Ross and Omar Ruiz-Lopez of the band Violet Bell are concerned about how they’ll make a living during this time.

“We are a two-earner household and both of our primary sources of income have been canceled,” said Ross.“We find ourselves as a household completely without income and with a very hungry child.”

Ross said that Violet Bell will accumulate $15,000 in losses from canceled gigs in March and April. Those dollars are a significant chunk of the couple’s income, since spring is a popular time for shows, Ross said. 

But she has faith they’ll make it through. 

“I think artists are creative people who have been used to making ends meet for a long time,” she said. Ruis-Lopez has recently started teaching online lessons for violin, viola, mandolin and guitar. 

Music venues are feeling the strain from the loss of business, as well. 

Kym Register, owner of the bar Pinhook and lead singer of Lomlands, is suffering losses as a musician and a business owner. They estimate that Lomlands lost $4,000 in gig cancellations spanning through May. 

“Our whole business model is to get as many people in a room to enjoy art and to be together,” said Register. They have had to lay off all Pinhook employees so they can apply for unemployment benefits, but Register plans on hiring them back.  

Many artists are trying to raise money via Patreon, a monthly donation platform where fans can support artists and other businesses.  

But moving shows online doesn’t come without technical difficulties. When NorthStar Church of the Arts streamed Country Soul Songbook’s live performance last Sunday, viewers had trouble seeing and hearing.

After about two hours of delays, the band, which combines country, folk and soul, started up again. Lead singer Kamara Thomas’s yodeling came through crisply over laptop speakers. 

The performance was captivating, and Country Soul Songbook made an effort to address the audience often. But viewers were frequently reminded they are in the middle of a pandemic: Singers cleaned the microphones with sanitizing wipes and the bassist wore a single rubber glove.

As of Tuesday, cases of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 were reported in all 50 U.S. states. The longer social distancing continues, the more activities seem to be moving online: Everything from museum tours to drag shows are going virtual. 

Register is trying to find the silver linings amidst the chaos and confusion, like creating communities for people in a time of crisis.

“‘Community is so much more than physical space’ is my tagline right now,” they said.

At top: Another screenshot from Country Soul Songbook’s performance at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

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

Displaced McDougald Terrace residents make City Council members listen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragic meets festive: Memorial to hundreds lost to gun violence joins Durham holiday parade

Sidney Brodie holds his iPhone to his mouth. “What is 103 times 8 minus 1?,” he asks.

“823,” Siri answers. 

Brodie and helpers have sewn 823 cloth squares onto his Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Each name, written in puffy paint, belongs to a person killed in Durham since 1994.

The Durham native and artist keeps track of the location of each name in a digital catalog. When asked for a number, he multiplies quilt columns by rows, subtracting any empty spots. 

“What is six times eight minus three?” he asks. “45,” the phone replies. 

Brodie pauses for a moment, sighs and locks his phone. So far this year he added 45 new names to the quilt. 

On Saturday Brodie’s quilt will appear at an unlikely place: the Durham Holiday Parade

Sidney Brodie with his quilt in his Durham studio. Photo by Cameron Beach

It was not his plan to join a festive event celebrating civic groups, marching bands and Santa Claus. 

But Brenda Young, whose son Edward was shot in 2017, asked for this. And Brodie could not say no.  

“It’s strictly about the families with me here for the parade,” he said. “I know this quilt means a lot to them.” 

Edward’s full name, Edward Young III, is painted onto a green square. His mother knows exactly where to look for it. 

Young said she was inspired to include the quilt at the polular event to remind families harmed by gun violence that others remember their loved ones. 

“My son is on the quilt. And it’s Christmas time. And I know everybody is in their feelings. I just wanted to give back to the community for the ones that lost their family to gun violence,” she said. 

Displaying the quilt publicly is recent for Brodie. His stitching began as a personal project after Shaquana Atwater, a toddler, was shot in 1994. Brodie learned she was struck in crossfire while playing outside her home while he was employed as a 911 operator in Durham.

For each victim, he adds a square to the eclectic colorful display, now more than 60 feet long. The quilt’s mix of colors and fabrics is intentionally random.

“I feel like each square is as unique and imperfect and as we are as people,” Brodie said during an interview in his small Durham studio. 

With simple details, Brodie tells a powerful narrative. Black buttons are visible on some squares. Each one marks the name of a child younger than 12. Included is 9-year-old Z’yon Person who was killed in August while riding in a car with his family. 

In one row, two black and white squares are nearly identical. They are a tribute to 10-month-old Ruia Reams and her mother Zhytila Wilkins who were killed in their home in January. “Baby” and “Mama” are painted alongside their names. 

“Quilts are tangible and functionally a quilt is a comforter. It’s doing that. It’s bringing comfort to these families,” Brodie said. 

Brodie removes the quilt’s black border to add more squares or to link it to other memorials when he brings it to vigils outside Durham. Photo by Cameron Beach

In a year when lethal gun violence is increasing in Durham, Young invited other family members of people named on the quilt to help carry it Saturday. She recruited members of the Southern High School football team, emerging anti-violence activists in town, too.

Edward Young played in the marching band at Southern High School, so when she asked them to help at the parade, it was a way to honor Edward’s legacy, she said. 

Young has been busy collecting donations and saving parts of her paycheck to purchase holiday-themed gloves, scarves and hats for the helpers.   

Bringing the quilt to a parade is a first, but Brodie’s designed it to tell multiple stories. White squares with black and white checkered ribbon, for instance, represent names listed out of chronological sequence. Brodie cut shirt cuffs and sewed buttoned pieces on top of the squares.

“The dates that I missed these people are all various dates throughout the years. They were at times in my life when I was going through personal things,” he said. “I chose cuffs to symbolize that these people slipped through my hands.” 

Brodie first displayed his quilt in 2017, after Kamari Munerlyn, age 7, was shot and killed on a drive home from a swimming pool. A vigil was held days later on the side of the road a police officer had tried to revive the child with CPR. 

Brodie stitched a yellow square with the boy’s name in blue and green onto the quilt during the vigil, while Munerlyn’s mother, father and grandmother watched. He got through it by wearing sunglasses on to hide his sorrow, he said.  

Young intends to lead the quilt procession Saturday, with Edward feeling nearby. As always, she’ll wear a heart-shaped necklace carrying Edward’s name inside.

“I’m ready. I’m so ready. This is something on my heart and that I want to,” she said. 

After the parade, Brodie will wrap his quilt in shrink wrap and take it back to his studio. These days he brings the quilt to vigils against gun violence elsewhere in North Carolina and out of state. 

Back in Durham, he is always prepared, regrettably, to add more names.

At top: Some of the more than 800 names on the Durham Homicide and Victims of Violent Death Memorial Quilt. Photo by Cameron Beach

Shielding Durham kids from vaping addiction and illness risks

Concerned about the rise of vaping among North Carolina teenagers and younger kids, some adults in Durham are fighting back.

E-cigarette use among high schoolers in this state increased 894 percent between 2011 and 2017, according to the North Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey. Among middle schoolers statewide, vaping jumped 430 percent during the same period. 

The Men’s Health Council of Durham and the Duke University Cancer Institute recently hosted a public forum titled “Smoking, Vaping & Other Inhalants: What You Need to Know.” 

“Since this is a viable product and available to everyone, we want to make sure that [kids] get this data before it is too late,” said Elvert Dorsey, chairman of the council, which promotes health among Durham men, especially black and Latino men.

Organizers handed out pamphlets, including one advising parents to remain nonjudgmental and honest when discussing e-cigarettes and to set a good example by neither smoking or vaping.

“It’s important for parents to introduce this information to their kids, even if their kid is not directly involved in this activity, because they surely know someone who is,” Dorsey told council members and parents at the Durham Human Services Building. 

Duke University pulmonologist Loretta Que urged everyone concerned about the health of young people to embrace the precautionary principle when it comes to e-cigarettes. That public health practice says when something may be harmful, steps should be taken to reduce exposure to the potential threat.

That’s true even when science hasn’t firmly established cause and effect.

“As of Nov. 13, 2019, there have been 2,172 cases of vaping related lung injuries and 42 related deaths in 24 states …  the lungs look like they have been burned in these patients that died,” Que said in a presentation. “Since substance causing these lung injuries is not known for sure yet, you should not start to vape or use an e-cigarette.”

Michael Scott, program manager of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, discussed how the tobacco industry has a long history of targeting young people with  advertising designed to make smoking look alluring. Specifically, big tobacco companies targeted young teens in order to gain life-long users, by hooking them on addictive nicotine. 

E-cigarette vendors have used using similar tactics, he said. Four out of five middle and high school students saw e-cigarette ads in 2106, in stores, on social media and in newspapers and magazines, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

JUUL for example, has used magazine ads, Instagram ads and sponsored events such as the Music in Film Summit” at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Utah to burnish its image with young consumers. Multiple states have sued JUUL, which recently changed its practices, for targeting young people with deceptive marketing. 

“Big tobacco and vape companies have to continue to recruit new customers as kids, and we want to prevent that,” Scott said. 

Scott said African Americans and members of LGBTQ+ community can also targeted by e-cigarette companies. 

“African Americans, people of low socioeconomic status, LGBT folks, Latino folks… those are the people disproportionately affected by smoking… and now vaping,” he said.

Durham has fairly progressive laws against smoking tobacco. Durham’s Board of Health in 2012 banned smoking in many outdoor public spaces, and a few indoor spaces such as public restrooms. Scott favors vaping bans too. 

“Vaping is less dangerous than smoking, but it still has its significant dangers,” Scott said. “Any anti-smoking laws need to include e-products and vaping products.”

But parents and all adults in the community can help now, Scott and Que said. Their number-one weapon for good in this domain? Education. 

“Be educated about the products that you see; be aware that these products exist, because your kids are seeing them in school and on social media. Secondly, be supportive of policies that are going to be put in place that will prevent this, such as banning menthol, banning flavors, banning e-cigarettes in general,” said Scott.

The best way to address this issue with teens is through nurturing, said Wanda Boone, executive director of Together for Resilient Youth, an organization trying to reduce substance abuse in Durham. Suspensions, expulsions and other forms of punishment in school and outside is not the right answer, she said.

“Holding young people totally accountable for smoking and vaping is like holding fish responsible for dying in a polluted stream,” Boone said. “Our responsibility is to protect them from this environment so that they have the opportunity to grow.

In that spirit, the men’s health council plans to hold more events on vaping at local schools to further spread the word on their risks.

At top: A young guy blows a dramatic vaping cloud. Photo by Micadew at Wikimedia