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The 9th Street Journal

‘Wipes are not flushable’: Inside Durham’s toilet paper freak-out

In stores around Durham, aisles usually well-diversified with toilet paper brands endorsed by happy bear families and cherubic mascots are barren. A sign above the depleted shelves at the Target on 15/501 declares, “Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of toilet paper, flushable wipes and facial tissue to 1 each per guest.”  

These are dire times. One unanticipated consequence of the coronavirus crisis is a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, as well as tissues and (now-infamous) flushable wipes.  It’s not just Target. The shelves echo emptiness at Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods and just about any other Durham store that sells it.

The void in the home-goods aisles has made room for Durhamites to step in. Listservs, Facebook groups, and Instagram posts show how the community has come together to help people cope with the toilet paper turmoil. 

On one Durham email thread, a woman offered up her own recent shipment from Who Gives A Crap, a specialty retailer that sells a version said to be 100% recycled.  She emphasized that she was not amassing a supply of the paper (which has become a bit of a taboo, particularly in community-minded Durham), but was simply a long-time subscriber to the service. The woman, ironically enough, did seem to give a crap: Her goal was to donate toilet paper to groups that may have a harder time obtaining it during the COVID-19 crisis such as the elderly or immunocompromised. 

Scott Sellers, a father of two, is also attempting to pass some TP under the stall, so to speak. He and a few of the other younger members of the listserv have banded together to run errands for those more at risk – and make sure they get the toilet paper they need. The effort, he says, is “emphasizing the best about us.” 

Sellers has heard some horror stories of stockpiling. 

“Harris Teeter restocks [toilet paper] at 6:30 a.m.,” he says, “and people are waiting in line until they run out.”

He is still scratching his head to understand the hoarding culture. His theory is that toilet paper is tangible.

“You can’t see this virus but you can see the toilet paper,” he says. Leaving a store with four 12-packs of Charmin or Angel Soft, in the face of mounting unpredictability, feels productive. 

People seem to crave this feeling. Throughout the county, there is a dull quiet. Workplaces are closed, stores are shuttered. People are seeking control – so they stock their pantries, and they fill linen closets, with toilet paper. 

A coping mechanism, “that’s probably what it is,” Sellers says. “Like, this gives me a piece of anchoring during this completely uncertain time.”

Empty shelves at the Target on 15/501.

David Matthews, the branch manager of Not Just Paper, an office and school supply store on Main Street, is also trying to understand the obsession. He agrees that it’s less about the use and more about the preparation. When expecting a child, this concept is called nesting – the urge to create a comfy space for the new baby. When expecting a pandemic, it’s about preparing the nest for an unclear future.

“People are unfamiliar with what all these stay-in-place orders mean and we feel insecure,” he says. “Word got out that you have to have your basic supplies and when you think about it, (toilet paper) is a basic supply people take for granted.”

He thinks there’s a bit of groupthink, too. “It gets your attention when you see the shelves empty.” Everyone is wondering why their friends and neighbors are stocking up, but don’t want to be the ones caught empty-handed. 

People have traveled far, from Rocky Mount and Jackson County, to visit his store. So he is loudly marketing their stash: a sign out front boasts, “We have toilet paper!”

“Supply and demand,” he points out. “We have it; other people don’t.” 

Not Just Paper is one of the many retailers that has taken to establishing a limit per customer, in an effort to flatten the curve on stockpiling. “I want to make sure there’s enough for everyone,” Matthews explains. 

At the end of the day, Matthews isn’t worrying about the psychology behind the hoarding. Like Sellers and the listserv volunteers, he just wants customers to know he can help. And while they’re not just paper – they do have plenty of it. 

And finally, some discouraging news for those who have not been so lucky in their bathroom stashing and have attempted to get creative. Flushable wipes, which are likewise beginning to sell out (much to the chagrin of city officials) are meant to serve as a TP alternative and dissolve in the sewer. Indeed, Cottonelle, the self-ascribed “No. 1 Flushable Wipe Brand among national flushable wipes brands,” claims to begin this dissolving process right after flushing. 

The city of Durham begs to differ. 

“Wipes are not flushable — no matter what the ads want us to believe!” their Instagram, @cityofdurhamnc, posted recently. The post goes on to implore residents to discontinue use of the products, which can clog home plumbing or sewer lines. It sums up the warning by urging followers to “#protectyourpipes,” perhaps in a wink to the respiratory pandemic causing the surge in stocking. 

At top, a sign outside Not Just Paper. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

What the stay-at-home order means for the homeless

On March 24, Mayor Steve Schewel ordered Durham residents to stay at home as much as possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But many people in the city do not have homes to go to. 

The stay-at-home order exempts homeless people, and they are being encouraged by ministries, advocates and government officials to seek shelter. Organizations that serve the homeless are working to establish protocol for those infected by the coronavirus. As of Friday, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Durham’s shelters.

The city and county departments and external services providers are in ongoing communication to establish “the screening, treatment, and housing protocol for the homeless population,” Colin Davis, manager for homeless systems for the City of Durham Community Development Department, explained in an email. 

Davis said services for the homeless are provided through the Durham Continuum of Care, a group of organizations and government agencies that works together to end homelessness and coordinates housing for the City of Durham and Durham County. The community development department is the lead agency for the group. 

There are two emergency homeless shelters in the city: Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and a small number of families, and Families Moving Forward, which focuses on shelter for families, according to Davis. 

There are not enough beds available for everyone who is experiencing homelessness in Durham, and beds are allotted in accordance with shelter’s admission policies, Davis said. The Urban Ministries of Durham has 149 beds total with an additional 30 overflow cots available and Families Moving Forward houses 21 families at a time.  

The Urban Ministries of Durham has restricted access to its campus because of the mayor’s order, which means people who do not live in the shelter can only come for food pick-up. All free meal services are now served in to-go packaging. Donations, such as the organization’s clothing closet, are suspended and volunteer staff is limited. 

Executive director Sheldon Mitchell emphasized that this is a big change for Urban Ministries of Durham, since over 100 people who do not reside on the campus typically come each day for meal services. 

The Urban Ministries of Durham has also created an Amazon wishlist to help stock items. According to their website, they are struggling to find thermometers, bottled water, Clorox bleach, spray disinfectant and hand sanitizer.  

“We have looked at trying to focus on the basic services for the residents we have on campus at this point,” said Mitchell. 

The shelter isn’t at maximum capacity yet, Mitchell said, but staff and residents are practicing social distancing. The city and county staff, as well as the Durham Emergency Communications Center, have been in discussion about where to relocate individuals to better alleviate the crowded space.  

Schewel said in his address that if a homeless person were to contract COVID-19, the city would work to create a facility where affected people could self-quarantine. He didn’t offer details about what that might look like. In San Francisco, homeless people have moved into vacant hotel rooms after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Mitchell has been in communication with city and county staff for at least two weeks to arrange plans for the homeless community during the virus outbreak. However, that process is challenging because of a malware attack on the city and county IT systems earlier in March that left some employees with limited email and phone capacities. 

More services are being organized and Mitchell has been pleased with support, but there’s been a delay in making plans for the homeless community, which Mitchell said is “one of the more vulnerable populations in this whole scenario.” 

“It is definitely important when we do have to make plans to address the community crisis such as this,” he said “that we do remember those who already have less resources or a lesser ability to react and respond.” 

Top photo: The Urban Ministries of Durham, which provides shelter for single adults and some families experiencing homelessness. Photo by Corey Pilson

Duke Health shares some details on COVID-19 preparations 

Duke Health, Durham’s largest health care provider, is the Bull City’s front line for treating people who become seriously ill from coronavirus. 

As the threat of a surge in hospitalization looms, Duke University and Duke Regional hospitals will need enough beds, adequate supplies and effective strategies to limit spread and save lives.

System leaders have a plan, Duke Regional Hospital President Katie Galbraith told the 9th Street Journal in an interview.

“This is something that we have been preparing for and planning for — for this type of event — for years,” said Galbraith. 

So, how is Duke Health gearing up? 

Adding beds

A Harvard Global Health Institute study made in collaboration with ProPublica that compares available hospital beds to potential needs projects that the Durham area’s supply could fall well short of demand. 

In the study’s moderate scenario — where 40% of adults contract coronavirus over 12 months — the sickest coronavirus patients will take up 3,060 hospital beds. The study says the Durham hospital region typically has 1,130 beds available. 

Even under normal conditions, Duke Health’s hospitals operate near full capacity. So Duke Health, which has a third hospital in Raleigh, has been preparing to expand bed capacity if needed since news of the highly contagious coronavirus first emerged, Galbraith said. 

“As soon as we started getting reports out of China about coronavirus, we started really focusing on our planning specifically for this area,” she said.

Duke Health is prepared to add 500 beds to the just over 1,500 beds across the system’s three hospitals, according to Galbraith. Hospital systems across North Carolina can increase capacity because North Carolina is in a state of emergency. 

“We are looking at different locations for beds within our hospital,” Galbraith said, adding that out-patient locations such as the system’s Ambulatory Surgery Center are potential sites for Duke Health bed expansions. 

Duke Regional Hospital was treating two hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Friday morning, said Galbraith, who did not know how many COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across the system.

Other measures to ensure Duke Health has adequate capacity to accommodate COVID-19 patients include rescheduling non-critical surgeries, procedures and appointments; and scheduling virtual visits to free up space. 

Supplies manageable, but concerning 

Duke researchers made headlines this week after developing a new method to decontaminate coveted N95 respirator masks so that they can be re-worn. The masks, an essential tool in protecting health care workers, are running low in hospitals across the country. 

The new method has helped Duke Health hospitals. “Right now we are managing well with what we have,” said Galbraith.  

But supplies might not last. 

“We are certainly concerned given the amount of supplies being used not only here locally, but across the country,” Galbraith said. “We’re concerned about the possibility of interruptions in the supply chain.”

According to Galbraith, Duke Health staff are working to secure more personal protective equipment. 

“They’re reaching out to suppliers and have been working since the pandemic was emerging,” said Galbraith. 

Supplies are coming from the community, too. Duke Health announced this week it would welcome donations of N95 masks, which are more protective than standard masks; surgical and looped masks; and unopened boxes of gloves. The donation site is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm at 100 Golden Drive, Durham.

Without proper supplies, health care workers everywhere are at greater risk of contracting coronavirus.

“The safety of our team members and our patients is our top priority,” said Galbraith.  

Changes to testing

Galbraith confirmed that Duke Health is now using it’s own COVID-19 test. The test, which has been under development throughout March, went into use this week.  

“We are running some tests in house and we still are using commercial labs for some tests as well, which gives us broader capacity,” she said. 

The combination of in-house and commercial testing allows the system to confirm which patients who have COVID-19 symptoms have coronavirus infection, Galbraith said. But in step with state guidance, Duke health care staff discourage people with mild symptoms from seeking testing.

New guidance to hospitals from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says patients with mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19 do not need testing for and should be instructed to stay home to recover. 

Widespread testing likely wouldn’t change treatment guidance and could unnecessarily expose health care workers and other patients, the department said. 

Duke Health is offering only limited testing, according to the system’s COVID-19 web page 

To inhibit spread, Duke Health has also banned visitors to its hospitals, with few exceptions. 

Stay at home

You’re a part of Duke Health’s strategy, too, Galbraith said. 

“I’m proud of our leadership role in this, but it’s not Duke alone,” Galbraith said. “We are going to need everyone to work together and to comply with a stay at home order, which is not easy for people, to get through this as a community.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Friday that a statewide stay-home order goes into effect on Monday. Durham’s stay-home order started Thursday. 

“Hospitals have been calling for the stay-at-home order,” Galbraith said. “We’re supportive of that and feel that order is supportive of us, as a healthcare system.”

Galbraith pointed out that “flattening the curve” — slowing the spread of coronavirus to prevent a surge in critically sick people — will prevent Duke Health from being “completely overwhelmed.”

Galbraith listed other ways Durhamites can help hospitals too. 

“Supporting first responders and health care workers. Offering to do chores for them, to make a meal for them, to help with child care,” she said.

Top photo: The novel coronavirus, called COVID-19. Photo from CDC.

County’s emergency order expands Durham’s stay-at-home policies

County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs extended stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers Saturday as local officials moved to stem the rapidly growing number of coronavirus cases in Durham, which reached 103 on Friday.

The new county measures broaden a citywide order that Mayor Steve Schewel implemented two days ago and adds new requirements for local businesses and childcare facilities. The county order goes into effect Sunday at 5 p.m. 

With Schewel’s consent and collaboration, Jacobs said the new rules extend stay-at-home and workplace requirements to parts of the county outside the city’s jurisdiction, including the Durham side of Research Triangle Park.

The 13-page order points to a federal list of critical infrastructure sectors to guide local businesses as they decide who should and should not be going to work. It also lays out  new sanitation and social distancing requirements for local businesses, as well as residents. These requirements include mandatory temperature checks for all employees at the start of each workday, maintaining six feet between all individuals, thoroughly washing hands as frequently as possible, and prohibiting the sharing of tools or workplace instruments.

“It really boils down to personal responsibility and just responsibility of all of our employers,” Jacobs said of the new requirements.

The order asks that childcare facilities abide by more stringent guidelines. Specifically, all childcare must be carried out in specific, unchanging groups. That means the same adult must be with the same group of children each day. These groups also are required to remain in separate rooms throughout the day, and they are prohibited from mixing.

Professional services such as legal, accounting, insurance and real estate also have strict new guidelines. All services are required to be carried out by a single individual, and may only take place if they are necessary for a closing sale. The ordinance prohibits in-person showings and open houses, but Jacobs encouraged real estate agents to take advantage of online tools like Facebook Live events for showing houses.

Jacobs emphasized that the county rules are more restrictive than a statewide order announced Friday by Gov. Roy Cooper. In order to most accurately target Durham County’s virus loci, Jacobs emphasized that local ordinances and rules take precedence over those in the state order, which takes effect Monday.

Jacobs acknowledged the inconsistencies in limits on social gatherings in different places, as some prohibit gatherings of any size, while others prohibit gatherings of more than two people. As of right now, both the state and local ordinances prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. However, Jacobs said this rule does not mean people should be going out of their way to socialize. “You really should try not to have social gatherings of any type,” she insisted.

Should the gathering limit prove too large in the coming weeks, the County Board will work with the mayor and county Health Director to amend the social gathering guidelines. 

Jacobs explained the new rules in a Facebook video from the County Board’s chamber Saturday afternoon. She pushed through a cough throughout the 40-minute announcement, but assured the audience that it was allergies, not COVID-19. She said she tested negative for the virus, and had practiced self-quarantining while waiting for her results.

Jacobs signed off by echoing an optimistic message from Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: “To our beloved Bull City, we can do this, we are strong, we are in this together.”

At top: County Board Chair Wendy Jacobs announces expanded emergency measures Saturday. Facebook video image by 9th Street Journal

Newly jobless hit bumps filing for unemployment pay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Durham 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.”
 

Five ways Durham’s ‘stay at home’ order differs from others

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s “stay-at-home” order issued Wednesday requires city residents to stay at home unless they have very specific, approved reasons to leave. 

The document is intended to prevent a global pandemic from spreading serious illness and loss of life here.

Italy has been ravaged with nearly 75,000 coronavirus cases and about 7,500 deaths. The United States could follow that path if communities don’t act to protect their residents, the mayor said.

“We are fortunate that the numbers in North Carolina and Durham are still low and we hope to keep it that way,” Schewel said during a press conference Wednesday.

Yet many people, particularly young people, had been “unhealthy and unsafe” by gathering in large numbers rather than practicing social distancing.

After announcing the stay-at-home order during a press conference streamed on several platforms, Durham officials spread word of the changes on social media.

Schewel’s order is similar to others across the country affecting more than 100 million Americans. But different states, cities and counties are customizing them to a degree.

Schewel said he closely crafted Durham’s 14-page order with city attorney Kim Rehberg while looking over orders from Mecklenburg County, home to Charlotte, and the village of Clemmons, near Winston-Salem, because both apply in North Carolina. 

All three orders ban public and private gatherings of more than 10 people. They require non-essential businesses to close. Grocery stores and pharmacies are among those exempt, along with restaurants serving take-out, drive-through and delivery meals only. Gas stations and other commerce vital to transportation can remain open.  

But Durham’s order differs from the others in this state and elsewhere in the country a bit. Here are five ways.

You probably won’t get arrested for violating the order 

Maryland isn’t messing around with its coronavirus response. 

Gov. Larry Hogan said last week that police were prepared to arrest people for violating restrictions on businesses and gatherings even before he issued guidance similar to “stay at home” orders across the country. 

Schewel skipped a law-and-order tone when he announced Durham’s order. 

Police have the power to enforce the order, he said, but the plans are not to arrest, cite or penalize anyone for violating it. Schewel didn’t rule out further action being taken for egregious offenses, though. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, contending with the country’s worst outbreak, struck a different tone in announcing his order. 

“These provisions will be enforced. These are not helpful hints,” Cuomo said. “These are legal provisions.”

Not a ‘shelter-in-place’ order

Before digging into the details of Durham’s order, Schewel was careful to distinguish it from a “shelter-in-place” requirement like one California implemented last week. 

The term “shelter-in-place” is often associated with shooters and nuclear attacks. This name might engender fear, he explained. 

“This isn’t something we need to be afraid of if we act,” Schewel said. 

No explicit curfew

As part of  its “safer-at-home” order, Hillsborough County in Florida, home to Tampa, will implement a mandatory curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays and for 24 hours on weekends.

Durham’s approach, on the other hand, doesn’t specify hours. It bans residents from being in public or partaking in business in public, except for travel for exempted essential purposes, at all times. 

New Jersey implemented a similar policy, but Gov. Phil Murphy described on Saturday it as a 24-hour curfew. 

“We want you off the roads. That’s basically 24 hours. We don’t want you out there, period,” Murphy said

Durham’s order is hyper-detailed

Durham’s stay-at-home order is 14 pages long, close in length and similar in wording to Mecklenburg’s 13-page document. 

Other jurisdictions have been much more concise. California’s finishes in two pagesThen again, Ohio’s runs a whopping 23 pages

The Durham order brings lots of specificity when describing exemptions, which include golf and tennis, with social distancing required. Golf is deemed “non-critical” in some parts of Florida. Mecklenburg allows it. Clemmons is silent on that sport.

Weddings, funerals allowed 

Washington State, which also has been hard hit, has canceled weddings and funerals. Most jurisdictions, including Durham, do not go that far.  

Durham is allowing weddings and funerals, granted that they follow relevant restrictions in the order.

This indicates those with only 10 or fewer people practicing social distancing will be allowed.

Durham’s order goes into effect Thursday at 6 p.m. and runs through April 30. Mayor Schewel stressed that it could be extended or shortened. 

 

 

Schewel announces stay-at-home order to slow spread of virus

In a bold effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Mayor Steve Schewel announced a sweeping stay-at-home policy that will limit when people can leave their homes but allow a host of exemptions for everything from grocery shopping to doctor visits to playing tennis.

He said it was critical to act now before Durham is overwhelmed by the virus.

“This is our window for social distancing to work. This is our window to intervene,” he said. 

He said the stay-at-home order assures that the maximum number of residents will self-isolate while still keeping essential businesses open. Those businesses include grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, and stores selling vital household goods. 

Schewel said the policy also allows Durham residents to continue to go outdoors for exercise, but he emphasized everyone must practice social distancing. He said contact sports – he mentioned basketball — were prohibited. But walking, hiking, running, biking, golfing and playing tennis are permitted.

The order will be in effect from Thursday at 6 p.m. until April 30, although Schewel said it could be extended or shortened.

Schewel said the order is legally enforceable, although no one will be arrested unless they “continuously and egregiously offend.”

Durham County has the state’s second-highest number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus – 74 in Tuesday evening’s tally. Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, has, 142.

“There is no need to fear this virus if we act. And the way to act is to stay at home,” Schewel said.

While the number of cases in Durham remains low, Schewel noted that the trend line of coronavirus in the United States is following that of Italy. He said it was urgent to act now to prevent the same magnitude of fatalities that occurred there.

He said he also hopes the order will keep the Duke Hospital from being overwhelmed with cases.

The order includes an exemption for educational institutions, including North Carolina Central University and Duke University, to stay open for essential research. 

Wake County was set to make an announcement Wednesday about a stay-at-home order, the Herald Sun reportedSchewel said he expects the order to be very similar.

A stay-at-home order has not yet been announced statewide, but Schewel is hopeful the governor will adopt one soon. He has been in contact with other North Carolina cities and counties which will adopt similar policies soon. 

“Our cities are all experiencing this same crisis,” he said.

Mecklenburg announced a policy similar to Durham’s Tuesday afternoon that orders residents to stay at home and bans gatherings of more than 10 people. The order limits travel on public roads to those needing medical care, food, or other trips vital to “well-being.” Mayors of nearby towns Cornelius, Matthews, Davidson, Mint Hill, Huntersville, and Pineville also signed the order.

The  stay-at-home approach by the North Carolina cities and counties is similar to policies in 18 states, 31 counties, and 13 cities as of Tuesday, according to a New York Times summary. Soon the majority of Americans will live under similar restrictions, the Times said.

Punishments vary by location. Violators in Hawaii may face up to a year in jail or $5,000 in fines. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order followed escalating restrictions in the city. On March 13, he ordered a state of emergency restricting gatherings to fewer than 100 people. He later expanded the order to close gyms, health clubs, and theaters. 

Then, on March 17, Governor Roy Cooper banned dining in at restaurants and bars.

On Monday, Durham closed all city facilities, including City Hall, police headquarters, fire stations, playgrounds, and park restrooms. Parks, trails, and greenways remained open.

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