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Scenes from an outbreak

Durham COVID-19 cases rise slightly, mayor weighs more protective steps

The number of Durham County residents diagnosed with COVID-19 increased only slightly, from 35 to 39 people on Friday, county health officials said.

At City Hall, Mayor Steve Schewel said the city was mulling new restrictions such as a shelter-in-place order, 9th Street reporter Ben Leonard reports. “Societies that have most effectively fought coronavirus have acted early,” Schewel said. 

During a question-and-answer session with 9th Street reporter Jake Sheridan, Schewel urged Durham residents to keep a social distance and still help one another during this crisis.

While local officials focus on reducing the corona virus threat, Durham musicians are planning virtual concerts to fill in for the closing of live music venues, 9th Street reporter Victoria Eavis discovered.

Also on Friday, Duke Health officials confirmed that one of its employees tested positive for the illness. Duke officials did not disclose the person’s role but stressed that the individual posed no risk to Duke Health patients.

The individual had no patient care contact at Duke at any time in the course of their illness and no Duke patients were at risk at any time,” according to a statement from health system spokeswoman Sarah Avery.

The employee developed symptoms while away from work and is currently self-isolating at home, the written statement said.

Duke Health is continuing its pilot drive up COVID-19 testing only for pre-approved patients.

Duke has not disclosed whether the testing has detected any COVID-19 cases. — Michaela Towfighi

At top: Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton at a City Hall press conference Friday afternoon. Photo by Corey Pilson

Mayor shutters gyms, theaters as COVID-19 count rises
By Cameron Beach

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel today ordered all gyms, fitness centers and theaters across the city to close Friday, the latest local government move to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Schewel declared a citywide state of emergency on Mar. 13, giving him the power to curb business operations. 

Today, eight new Durham County residents tested positive for coronavirus, bringing Durham County’s total cases to 35, county health officials reported.

Schewel’s directive to end in-person services at gyms and theaters mirrors similar orders across the country. On Monday, New York closed all gyms across the state, while Texas today closed all gyms, bars, schools and clubs. The shutdowns have reached parts of North Carolina too.

On Wednesday, Mecklenburg County’s public health director ordered gyms, health clubs and theaters to close, affecting Charlotte and nearby communities. Today, Buncombe County — home to Asheville — mandated businesses where 10 or more people congregate to close, including gyms and theaters.

Some gyms in Durham had begun closing before the mayor’s announcement. Fitness clubs like Orangetheory, Planet Fitness, and Duke University’s recreational facilities are all shuttered.

But others had planned to remain open. Jack Wiggen, owner of Bull City CrossFit, shut down his group fitness classes today, but had hoped to stay open to individual clients, he said.

“We’re very concerned,” Wiggen said. “We’re a very small business, and we don’t operate at the volume of big gyms.”

To hang onto some business, Wiggen will begin “personally programming” classes — workouts for members to do at home — online, he noted.

David Rubin, owner of CrossFit Durham, said he is starting virtual happy hours to maintain the community in his gym.

“Community is a huge part of our business model,” Rubin said. “Trying to keep that going is really important.”

Though they don’t know when their gyms will be able to reopen, both Rubin and Wiggen are preparing for a longer closure.

“We’re doing everything we can to mitigate this,” Wiggen said. “But we’re worried for a long-term shut down. That would be a dramatic effect on all small businesses, not just us.”

Some Durham gym-goers are stepping up to support fitness clubs during this crisis.

“Our community is rallying,” Rubin said. “We’ve had people un-cancel their memberships this week, because they want to make sure the business is there when this is all over.”

The mayor’s state of emergency is set to expire on Mar. 28, but could be extended if coronavirus continues to spread in Durham.

NCCU students stream from campus as dorms closeNorth Carolina Central University students and their families hustled to empty dorm rooms Thursday to meet a Friday deadline to move out.

The University of North Carolina system midweek announced plans to close most housing on campuses across the state to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Students will continue their classes online.  That leaves Durham’s two largest college campuses without undergraduates. Duke University has shut down its dormitories and its students also will finish spring semester online.

Photographer Corey Pilson captured Central students’ rushed exodus above and below. His journalism is part of 9th Street’s coverage of the countless ways the coronavirus outbreak is transforming Durham.Governor Roy Cooper’s order this week to close restaurant dining rooms and bars, for instance, will hit Durham businesses hard. One local owner is leading a drive to urge Cooper to do more to help them survive.

If you have suggestions for coverage or questions you’d like answered, please let us know.
Duke-linked COVID-19 cases jump to 26

Another 11 people in Durham affiliated with Duke University very likely have the COVID-19 virus, bringing the total to 26.

Duke and Durham County officials announced the additional cases Wednesday eve after reporting news Tuesday that 15 Duke community members, who travelled on the same international program, appear to have the virus.

Today’s release states that “most” of the 11 new individuals suspected of having the virus traveled internationally too. All 26 now isolated in housing off campus.

“Duke Health and DCoDPH are working to complete contact investigations to determine if these individuals had close contact with others within Durham County while symptomatic,” the statement said.

While officials won’t disclose patient names, they encouraged Durham residents to follow CDC social distancing guidelines and maintain “at least 6 feet of distance from others when possible,” according to the release. — Cameron Beach

So far, GoDurham is running a normal bus schedule. Staff are cleaning “high-touch” areas on and off buses a bunch. Here Keijuan Atkins washes down chairs in the Durham Station, where riders could use restrooms but were not allowed to linger on Wednesday. Photo by Corey Pilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was no sign of customers driving or walking on a stretch of Ninth Street, one of Durham’s busiest commercial centers, Tuesday morning. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 cases rising in Durham

Durham County and Duke University officials released word today that 15 people affiliated with Duke appear to have COVID-19.

All travelled abroad in the same Duke program, the announcement said, and were told to self-quarantine at off-campus housing after returning to Durham.

Citing  privacy, the officials said they would release no more information about the 15 individuals.

“DCoDPH and Duke Health are working to complete a contact investigation to determine if these individuals had close contact with others within Durham County while symptomatic,” the statement said.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines close contact as being within approximately 6 feet of a  person with a COVID-19 infection for a minimum of 10 minutes.”

At top: A cleaning supplies and paper goods section at a Harris Teeter grocery story on Hillsborough Road was picked clean midday Tuesday. Staff were restocking shelves across the store. Photo by Corey PilsonFoodie Durham’s dining rooms forced to close
By Victoria Eavis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every day, life in Durham is changing because of the coronavirus.

Performances at DPAC and the Carolina Theatre are canceled. The Bulls season is delayed at least two weeks. And most hearings and trials at the Durham Courthouse have been postponed.

The county and city have each declared a state of emergency. Many restaurants and stores have stayed open, but they’re less crowded and hours have been curtailed. The Target on 15/501 still has plenty of groceries, but good luck getting hand sanitizer or toilet paper.

We’ll be covering the changes here on The 9th Street Journal. If you have suggestions for our coverage or questions you’d like answered, please let us know.

Bill Adair and Cathy Clabby, Co-Editors