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Posts tagged as “Coronavirus”

My adventures with curbside voting

Elections remind me of ABC’s “The Bachelor.” Each season is billed as the “most dramatic ever.”  

And sure enough, a fiercely contested election in a global pandemic is, of course, the “most dramatic ever.” For me, it’s also my first chance to vote for a president. I knew it would be memorable, but it took on more urgency when I was quarantined three weeks before Election Day.  

That foiled my voting plans.  Until Oct. 31, the last day of early voting, I would not be allowed to enter the polls. If I contracted the coronavirus myself, my quarantine could extend through Nov. 3, Election Day.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

I did not want to take a risk with a mail-in ballot arriving in time. The solution: vote early, but do it curbside.  According to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, voters are eligible to vote from their car due to age or disability. You also qualify if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or are at risk of getting it. 

So last Wednesday afternoon, my roommate drove us to the Karsh Alumni & Visitors Center at Duke, one of 14 early voting locations in Durham County.  

We pulled up to the  “curbside voting here” sign and were greeted by Kate, a poll worker who wore a fluorescent yellow jacket and a blue cloth mask.  

I sat in the passenger seat as Kate asked why we would like to vote curbside and explained that we would have to sign an affidavit asserting that we could not go inside.  

“I do solemnly swear or affirm that I am a registered voter in precinct 3…that because of age or physical disability I am unable to enter the voting place to vote in person without physical assistance…” it began.   

We verbally agreed. Kate then took our names and went inside to print a document that certified our name and address, and bring out our ballots.  

She returned moments later with both documents in a purple plastic sleeve.  

She then explained the application and ballot – sign here and here, read through all contests and fill in the bubbles, flip the ballot over and do the same on the other side.  

We each checked our name and address again, and signed the affidavit.  

And so I sat in the passenger seat of my roommate’s car with my mask on and voted in my first presidential election.   

Kate stood off to the side of the car while we filled out the ballots.  When we finished, we waved to her to collect them. Unlike typical in-person voting, we could not feed our ballots into the tabulator machine ourselves. We’d have to trust that Kate would take care of that.  

Our reward was the same as other early voters: a metallic retractable Board of Elections “I voted in the 2020 election! ”pen) and the delightfully Durham “No Bull, I Voted” sticker.  The whole process took 32 minutes. 

It wasn’t the most dramatic election ever, but it was very much on brand with the surprises of 2020.

Reporter Michaela Towfighi talks with an elections worker at the early voting site at the Karsh Alumni & Visitors Center at Duke. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal 

Another COVID death linked to Durham County jail

When North Carolina prison officials announced the death of an inmate from COVID-19 last month, they did not name him. They referred only to a man in his late 50s who was assigned to a state prison that he never entered. 

That man, it turns out, was Darrell Kersey, a 59-year-old from High Point. Kersey got sick while detained in the Durham County Detention Facility.

Kersey’s death is the second COVID-19 fatality linked to the Durham jail not disclosed to the public. In April, senior detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from COVID-19 after Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced a coronavirus outbreak there.

Kersey became sick in the beginning of August, during a publicly disclosed outbreak among inmates and staff, sheriff department spokesman David Bowser said Thursday. Because he was a state detainee, county officials could not release news of his death, Bowser said.

Kersey died from COVID-19 complications at 3:30 pm on Sept. 16 at Duke University Hospital, his death certificate shows. That is precisely the same day and time noted in the vague state press release.

Kersey entered the Durham jail last December after officers arrested him for stalking and other crimes, court records show. After pleading guilty to some of these charges, Kersey was sentenced to a state prison term in July.

But he remained in the county jail, one of a group of inmates whose transfer to a state prison was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a press release, state prison officials said the unnamed inmate who died of COVID-19 had been admitted to the hospital on Aug. 20. That was soon after Sheriff Birkhead disclosed a COVID-19 outbreak had infected 21 inmates and five staff members. 

Birkhead on Sept. 8 asked county commissioners to pay for periodic testing to protect county jail inmates and staff from coronavirus. During a presentation in September, Birkhead noted that an unnamed state prisoner who was an inmate in the county jail was hospitalized with COVID-19 and had been on and off ventilators for weeks.

When asked for an update on that inmate on Oct. 7, Birkhead said he was unable to give one. “Since he is a state inmate I am not able to comment on that at this time,” the sheriff said.

Wendy Jacobs, chair of the county commissioners, said on Friday as far as she knows the sheriff’s department did not notify board members that a person who fell sick with COVID-19 in the county jail had died. But she was checking to confirm.

9th Street was unable to learn much about Darrell Kersey, beyond criminal court records and a short obituary. Efforts to reach his family were unsuccessful.

Like many North Carolina county detention facilities, the Durham jail lately has kept inmates after they were sentenced to time in state prisons.

Last month, nine state inmates were in the downtown Durham jail due to a backlog in transfers to state facilities, Birkhead said. The delay is connected to staffing shortages linked to the coronavirus, according to John Bull, a North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Coronavirus outbreaks have plagued county, state and federal correctional facilities for months. There have been at least 3,394 cases of coronavirus and at least 17 deaths among prisoners in North Carolina, according to the Marshall Project, which is logging cases nationwide.

Several organizations that advocate for prisoners rights filed a lawsuit against the North Carolina officials charging that incarcerated people in state prisons have not been adequately protected from infection.

In its death announcement, the state Department of Public Safety noted it was not sharing a name to protect “his family’s right to privacy and the confidentiality of prison offender records.” 

Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, a spokesperson for the ACLU, one plaintiff in the suit alleging inadequate inmate protections, expressed concern for the safety of all those in custody in North Carolina.  

“We have significant concerns about protecting the health of people who are incarcerated — be it in prisons or jails — during a global pandemic,” he said. “It’s clear that shared living spaces and densely populated facilities provide an environment in which this virus can spread quickly.”

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

In first (and only) debate, gubernatorial candidates clash on schools, economy and masks

On the eve of North Carolina’s first day of early voting, Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest debated issues from health care to taxes to hurricanes. But much of the debate centered on their most contentious disagreement: how to handle the coronavirus. 

Although Cooper is leading in the polls, he attacked Forest from the outset. The majority of polls show Cooper leading by at least 10 points, and a WRAL survey released Wednesday had him up by 13 points. 

Face to face for the first time, they debated face masks and schools. Cooper defended his mask mandate against Forest’s claims that they are not proven to be effective. Forest argued that children should return to classrooms, and Cooper defended his phased reopening. 

During the hour-long debate, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, they also clashed on how fast Cooper was reopening the state’s economy.

“Talking about masks is a great cover for what he really doesn’t want to talk about, the over million and a half people that he has left unemployed,” Forest said. 

“You’re not just ignoring science, you’re ignoring common sense,” Cooper replied. “You cannot wish the pandemic away.” 

Forest acknowledged the threat of COVID-19 for older people and those with underlying health conditions. He emphasized the danger the pandemic poses to people in nursing homes and the state’s most vulnerable residents. “That’s where we should be spending all of our time and attention,” he said. “We should allow healthy people to get back [to] life.” 

He said children are 17 times more likely to be impacted by the flu than coronavirus, a claim PolitiFact has rated mostly false.

Cooper countered that protecting the most vulnerable people requires cooperation from everyone. “The problem is, Dan, you treat nursing homes like an island,” he said. 

“When you have people out there discouraging masks, when you have people out there trying to prove that there’s not a pandemic, then you end up having more people who are infected. It could be a nursing home staff member [or] a visitor,” he said. 

Above: Plexiglas wasn’t the only thing that separated Roy Cooper from Dan Forest in the gubernatorial debate. (Screenshot from WRAL broadcast.)

Durham cancels trick or treating. Will crowds obey?

COVID-19 has claimed its next holiday victim in Durham: trick or treating on Halloween.

Donning a witch’s hat, Steve Schewel announced last week that Oct. 31 celebrations must look different this year to keep Durham residents safe.

Durham Parks and Recreation has created stand-in events to make sure this spooky season does not get overlooked, Schewel promised. 

“Durham residents have done a great job suppressing the coronavirus, wearing masks and social distancing and washing hands,” Schewel said during a press conference posted online. “The last thing that we want is for Halloween to become a super spreader event in our community.”

With North Carolina reporting over 230,000 cases, Durham County currently accounts for less than 1% of the cases in the state, but there have still been over 8,000 reported cases and 97 reported deaths here, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Schewel said he spoke with leaders of neighborhood that usually get the most trick-or-treaters, other North Carolina mayors and the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, Mandy Cohen, to explore how to handle Halloween during this pandemic. 

Outdoor mass gatherings are still limited to 50 people, meaning that the usual masses of costumed trick-or-treaters can not flood the streets. 

Club Boulevard in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood usually attracts so many trick-or-treaters along one mile that the city usually dispatches traffic cones and police officers to protect the masses of children. They will not do so this year, to emphasize that trick-or-treaters should not flood Club Boulevard or nearby streets accustomed to big crowds. 

The number of Halloween candy pieces handed out at two homes on West Club Boulevard each Halloween has long exceeded 1,000. Stormy weather accounts for dips in 2011 and 2019. Chart courtesy of Dot Doyle

Normally people there leave their porch lights on to welcome candy seekers, but this year Schewel is urging residents to turn them off.  “We know we can’t make this all work through enforcement, we have to make it work through our community voluntarily complying,” Schewel said.

But can it?

Tom Miller, who has lived in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood since 1983, trusts that people there are committed to discouraging the 1,000-plus trick-or-treaters they have welcomed in years past.

He does worry, however, that not everyone will be aware of the new situation and still come to the neighborhood. 

“People in my neighborhood do not want to spread COVID or be responsible for anyone becoming ill,” Miller said. “I won’t be surprised if people don’t get the word and come here. I’m worried about that. But I don’t believe that you’re going to see people on the street setting up this year as normal.”

Watts Hospital-Hillandale residents, who in the past have possibly drawn the most trick-or-treaters citywide, will post signs around their neighborhood about a week before to make the message explicit.  

“I urge other of the busiest Halloween neighborhoods to do the same,” said Schewel, who lives on leafy Club Boulevard near Ninth Street. He estimated more than 1,500 trick-or-treaters from Durham and out of town visited last year for candy. 

Although residents hate to post signs to deter one of their favorite holiday traditions, this year’s restrictions are necessary, said Dot Doyle, Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association president. 

“If we have 1,500 children and their grown ups, that’s four or maybe five thousand people on the sidewalks in five blocks, which is just not possible with social distancing,” Doyle said, adding that she hopes she and neighbors can welcome everyone back in 2021.

Despite plans to discourage trick or treating in Watts Hospital-Hillandale, some yards are already gussied up for the holiday. Photo by Henry Haggart

Residents of Monmouth Avenue in Trinity Park, another popular destination, have found an alternative way to hand out treats this year. They plan to assemble candy bags they’ll donate to the Durham Children’s Initiative.

“On my block of Monmouth Avenue, we get over 1,300 kids,” said Pela Gereffi, who personally handed out 1,178 pieces of candy last year. “But we decided to go by what the mayor had stated — we’re not going to celebrate Halloween. We’re going to turn off our lights.” 

“Trunk or treat” events of the past, where large groups of children gather in church parking lots to move from car to car, are also too dangerous for this year, Schewel said. Faith communities can celebrate through touchless drive-thru trick or treating in church parking lots.

The City of Durham has posted suggestions online too, down to wardrobe coaching. “Costume masks should not be placed over a cloth mask as it will make it hard to breathe. Instead, it is suggested that participants use a Halloween-themed cloth mask over the costume mask,” the post says.

“If your family wants to trick or treat with a few other families, this is encouraged, as long as you pre-arrange the visits, the groups are small and outside only, everyone is wearing a Covid-safe mask and the transmission of treats is touchless,” Schewel said.

Durham Parks and Recreation All Hallows’ Eve events will be open to the public, but to limit crowd sizes, pre-registration is required. Among the events:

Fright Night” is a drive-thru event that will be held on Oct. 23 from 6-9 p.m. at Pineywood Park. Participants are encouraged to dress in Halloween costumes and participate in a safe, drive-thru trunk or treat.  There will also be a haunted drive-thru trail, and a socially distanced viewing of “James and the Giant Peach” on the lawn. This event will cost $1.50 for city residents and $6.50 for non-city residents. 

“Vamp It Up” will be a virtual Zoom event hosted on Oct. 30 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Participants can pick up supplies beforehand on Oct. 23 at the Edison Johnson Recreation center. Supplies will include an arts and crafts activity, candy, and a snack such as pretzels or cheez-its. Participants are encouraged to dress in their Halloween costumes for the virtual event. 

The night before Halloween, the Holton Career and Resource center will host a drive-thru event “Trick or Treat, Stay Six Feet.” Participants will need to pre-register for a time slot within 6-8 p.m. Kids will drive to the parking lot and remain in their vehicles to receive free, contactless candy and treats. 

The 32nd annual “Hallow-Eno” will still take place this year, on Oct. 31 from 6-9 p.m. Participants will drive-thru West Point on the Eno’s historic area, and remain in their car to observe the Halloween decorations along the historic park loop, receive goody bags and take-home activities, and enjoy live Halloween music. 

The “Full Moon Fever Bike Ride – Halloween/Blue Moon Ride” will take place on Oct. 31 too from 7:30-10:30 p.m. A community trail watch group will have two start times and locations. The first ride will be approximately 32 miles, and the second ride will be approximately 16 miles. 

“Dias de los Muertos,” a virtual event to celebrate Mexico’s traditional Day of the Dead, happens Nov. 2 from 10-11 a.m.

“Halloween will be different this year, but Halloween will still be wonderful this year,” Schewel predicted. “I urge all of our residents to be as creative as you can.”

9th Street Journal reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at kathleen.hobson@duke.edu

At top: During this presidential election year, Donald Trump and Joe Biden masks are among the offerings at Spirit Halloween on Fayetteville Road. Photo by Henry Haggart

With Wellness Wednesdays, Durham schools tune into student health

Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.

For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.

“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”

Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.

Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.

There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health. 

A few Burton Elementary faculty members lead a session on Wellness Wednesday focused on physical health. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.

Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.

The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students. 

“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.

Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.

On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.

For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.

“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.

Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.

Burton teachers and administrators continue to bring material support to their students, despite school remaining online. Distributing free books from nonprofit Book Harvest is one example. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.

Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.

“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.

Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.

After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.

Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown. 

“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.

School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.

After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.

“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Sheriff seeks pared-down testing to monitor coronavirus in county jail

After not landing funding for coronavirus testing at the Durham County Detention Facility last month, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has a new proposal. 

The sheriff on Monday will ask county commissioners to pay for testing 20 randomly selected inmates every two weeks. A positive result would spark testing for all inmates.

“I am hopeful they will recognize that we’ve presented a very fair, affordable, and potentially life-saving recommendation,” said Birkhead, who lost a detention center staff member to COVID-19 in April.

With “creative funding” using money in his budget, Birkhead found a way to pay for testing for all inmates and employees in the past week. That turned up zero cases, he said. 

Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. Photo from sheriff’s office

But that doesn’t mean the pandemic threat there is over. All across the country coronavirus has posed a lethal risk to inmates and staff at local, state, and federal correctional facilities. To date, 17 people confined in state prisons have died from COVID-19 in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Law enforcement across the country reduced the number of people confined in jails by making fewer arrests and releasing people not considered a risk to communities. Nationally there were about 200,000 fewer people in local jails in June than at the start of the outbreak in March, according to research by the Vera Institute of Justice. 

Durham reduced its census too. But senior detention officer Alexander Pettiway Jr. died from coronavirus in April after an outbreak among detention center staff. In August, 21 inmates and five staff tested positive. 

The number of people held in the Durham County jail remains significantly lower than its capacity of 736. But the number held there has ticked up since March, according to the sheriff’s department. 

There were 311 people detained there on Wednesday, compared to March, when the population declined to the mid 200s. 

Two factors explain the increase: an increase in crime in Durham and a backlog of state prisoners the center continues to hold, Birkhead told commissioners last month.

There has been a 40% increase of shootings alone in the city of Durham, from 495 reported shootings last year between January and September to the 689 reports this year, according to a WRAL report.  

“Durham has a serious gun problem, certainly a serious gun violence problem. You overlay that with a gang issue we have had for years. Unfortunately in this environment, be it the pandemic and where we are nationally, all of it is contributing to an uptick in crime,” Birkhead said. 

Crime increased in the county, which the sheriff’s department patrols, as well from January to September 2019 to those nine months in 2020. For example: aggravated assaults, which includes shootings, rose 18%; larceny is up 11%; car thefts rose 38%; and burglaries increased 29%, according to the sheriff’s department.

Birkhead said he worries that as the election draws closer crime will continue to rise including, potentially, acts of voter intimidation and voter suppression.

 “Law enforcement all across the state of North Carolina is talking about what will need to be done to make sure everyone is safe not just from the virus, but safe from any voter suppression or voter intimidation,” said the sheriff.

Nine state offenders, people sentenced to stays in state prison, were still being held in the Durham Detention Center of Sept. 29. North Carolina pays the county detention center $40 a day for holding these people. That is not a major concern as it makes up a very small percentage of the total inmate population, the sheriff said.

Throughout the state of North Carolina 78 jails were holding at least one offender on backlog to the prison system as of last month. There were 792 offenders on the backlog then, although the number fluctuates daily, said to John Bull, communications officer for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Bull attributed the backlog to a high systemwide correctional officer vacancy rate, exacerbated by the pandemic. While noting it’s not  the highest it’s been in recent years, the vacancy rate was 15.92%, Bull said.

Despite the rise in the number of people held in the Magnum Street detention center, the fact that it is below capacity still helps reduce the risk of another coronavirus outbreak, Birkhead said.

“It allows us to do extraordinary measures: placing detainees into single cells, creating as much social distancing as possible, skipping cells and spreading folks out,” he said.

The Sheriff expects to present a new version of his testing plan to county commissioners on Monday.

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: People are barely visible peeking out of windows on the face of the Durham County Detention Facility downtown, but they are there. Photo by Henry Haggart

Here’s what Dan Forest really says about face masks

Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted an attack ad dramatically depicting a quote from his opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest: “I would lift the mask mandate for the state.” Forest would set North Carolina back in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Cooper wrote in his caption. 

52 minutes later, Forest tweeted the exact same graphic. He didn’t need a caption to make his point.

In a governor’s race dominated by the pandemic, face masks are a divisive symbol. Cooper has criticized Forest for ignoring the guidance of experts on masks, but Forest is not shy about his opinions.

On the campaign trail, the Republican challenger has said that masks are not effective and shouldn’t be required in the classroom. 

His comments often focus on individual freedom and an alleged lack of a scientific consensus. And some of his remarks suggest he may not believe in scientific conclusions at all.

Individual freedom and responsibility

Cooper, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Mandy Cohen, the state secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, would all say the responsible decision is the same for everyone: wear a mask. But Forest said he believes masks are only important for some. 

I would lift the mask mandate for the state and allow individual freedom to decide whether [North Carolinians] wear a mask.” Forest said in a Sept. 16 press conference. “There are people that have pre-existing conditions … and they need to protect themselves.”

Health experts say that masks are not as much for the wearer’s protection as they are for others. “COVID-19 can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected,” the CDC states on its website. “That’s why it’s important for everyone to wear masks in public settings,” the website reads.  

Forest also said he doesn’t think masks are necessary in schools, but added that they should be worn “ if that is what the parent determines is best for their student.”

During a virtual forum on education, Cooper criticized Forest’s comments. “It was stunning to hear my opponent, the lieutenant governor, say last week that as governor he would fill up every classroom immediately with no safety guidelines and no mask requirement,” Cooper said. “Not only is that wrong, it’s dangerous.” 

Forest called Cooper’s attack against him “character assassination.” 

Despite the statewide mandate, many of Forest’s supporters have accepted his invitation to make their own decisions. Pictures and videos from Forest’s in-person campaign events rarely show masks.

During an Aug. 4 campaign stop in Lexington, WXII News asked him about the lack of face masks in the crowd. 

“When we have events we have masks at the door, anybody that wants one can put one on,” Forest said. “A lot of people don’t show up with masks.”

Masks and social distancing also work against his method of campaigning, Forest said. “We shake as many hands as we can and we meet as many people as possible. It’s just the way we’ve always run a campaign,” he said. “If I’m talking to the crowd, I don’t wear a mask. Can’t talk with a mask on.”

Scientific uncertainty and public confusion

As Forest encourages all North Carolinians to make their own choice about face masks, he laments a perceived lack of conclusive scientific data that might aid them in their decision. The public is confused, Forest said. There are too many mixed messages about the efficacy of masks.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, this was true. Anthony Fauci and the CDC said that masks were not necessary for healthy individuals back in March.

But public guidance has since shifted. The CDC and other public health experts are now clear in recommending face masks for everyone in public spaces.

“I think there’s just a lot of confusion out there with people,” Forest said. “That’s why you see some people wearing them and some people not.”

In a comment PolitiFact rated false, Forest said that masks are not effective with viruses and have never been used with a coronavirus. 

There have been multiple comprehensive studies at the deepest level, held to scientific standards, under controlled circumstances in controlled environments, that have all said for decades masks do not work with viruses,” he said in a July 4 interview.

Forest has cast doubt on the science of closing schools, too. “There is no solid science or data anywhere that suggests that our kids should not be in the classroom right now,” he said. Across the country, outbreaks have appeared in schools that prematurely resumed in-person instruction.

Franklin High School in Macon County, North Carolina was forced to suspend in-person instruction after a staff member tested positive for coronavirus. Students or staff members at six of the 11 schools in Macon County School District have tested positive, The Charlotte Observer reported

But if there’s science that suggests schools and businesses can reopen safely, Forest is quick to rely on it. “The fear and panic campaign continues to go on in North Carolina and that’s unfortunate,” he said in an interview with conservative YouTuber John Woodard, “because there’s plenty of data out there that would suggest that we as a state can live with this virus and can get peoples’ livelihoods back.” 

Forest’s stance on face masks may be rooted in his opinion on science itself. Science isn’t about reaching a consensus, he said, it’s about skepticism. 

Science is not a one size fits all,” Forest said in a recent press conference. “All science is based on skepticism, and you need to have skeptics.”

The “fear and panic campaign” is threatening that foundation, according to Forest. “If anybody is ever skeptical of anything that goes on that doesn’t meet the narrative of the left right now, then they are shut down,” he said. 

Forest said that hundreds of doctors have called to say that their thoughts and findings on face masks are being ignored. He said he’s trying to find accurate, reliable information.

“I’m not a scientist nor a doctor, I just try to do my best to filter through it,” he said. “Just like everybody else.”

At top: Forest poses with employees outside Parker’s, a popular restaurant recently criticized for allegedly not enforcing mask use among workers. Via Dan Forest’s Facebook page.

Teens escape being stuck at home by building digital birthday bashes

In June, a mother posted a plea for help on the Nextdoor neighborhood social media app. How was she to plan a 10th birthday party for her son in the middle of a pandemic?

Since you can build nearly anything in Minecraft, Harrison and Sophie Stanley decided to build birthday parties. Photo by Henry Haggart

She noted her kid’s love for Minecraft, a sandbox video game in which players can mine, build on, and create on an infinite 3D terrain.

After reading this, Jennifer Stanley approached her children, Harrison and Sophie, to see if they had any ideas. They did, and three months later they are running a business called Digicraft, a virtual startup with 10 percent of profits going to a local food bank.

At a time when there are constant think-piece articles and Instagram trends focused on adults tapping into their creativity during COVID quarantine, you don’t hear much about kids. But they too are trying to gain back what has been taken away, including the ability to socialize safely.

“I think it’s one of those things that lets you forget what’s going on in the world, which I think a lot of people need. It gets you out of the work and lets you focus on just creating something new,” Harrison said.

The teenagers created an intricate scavenger hunt in one of their first Minecraft birthday party experiences. Photo by Henry Haggart

After their mother asked, Harrison, 17, and Sophie, 14, put their Minecraft building skills to work. Over the course of a few weekends, they created an interactive “realm” on the Minecraft video game server that multiple players could log into together and enjoy.

The two split up the construction work. Their first world was zombie-themed. Players could “spawn” there and read a sign explaining that zombies had invaded the place and villagers needed players to make it safe again. They built a scavenger hunt for the players, ending with fireworks, music and birthday cake.

After testing each other’s sections and checking with the kid’s parents, they opened the world to their client, and watched him and his friends explore.

“It was so cool watching this kid and his friends interact with, and love this thing that we made,” Sophie said. “And it was so special that we just wanted to keep doing it.” 

Thus, the two decided to build a business. Over the past two and a half months, they have created eight worlds for birthday parties, for kids ages 7 to 12 years old in Orange and Durham counties and out of state. 

Every weekend, the two would huddle around the desktop in the bonus room at home and plan, spitballing ideas and using teamwork to fashion new and unique worlds for each party.

“The cool thing is that we don’t really have any specific plans. We just sit together and shoot off ideas of what looks cool and seems like it will be a fun experience,” Harrison said.

Harrison patrols the worlds they create through an Xbox. Sophie uses an iPad. Photo by Henry Haggart

Using their respective strengths and creativity, they divide the business-side and creative-side of planning for each party. And of course, as with all siblings, collaborating brings its own challenges.

“There’s some bickering, of course, and they have different creative visions. And so, there have been a couple of times where I’ve had to say, ‘you guys need to learn how to critique each other’,” Stanley said. 

At the same time, Digicraft provides a space for Harrison and Sophie to learn about cooperation, creativity and self-discipline, the sort of things they’d normally be getting in non-virtual school.  

“I think that as a parent you see video games as purely an escape,” Stanley said. “Suddenly, this was an opportunity for kids who have been socially distanced to get together virtually, and for my kids to see themselves as mentors for them.”

The two charge $100 for one hour of playtime in their Minecraft worlds, with 10 percent of the profits going to Feeding the Carolinas, a nonprofit network of food banks in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Though the two started (virtual) school at East Chapel Hill High School in August, they still run their business, even with honors classes, college applications, and extracurriculars. Where for some this might be an added stressor, for Harrison and Sophie, it’s a needed refuge.

“Kids aren’t meant to stay home all the time; they’re meant to scream and shout and chase and flirt and all that stuff and it’s like they can’t do any of that,” their mother said. “We need something to replace what we’ve lost. And if we can create it ourselves, there’s a sense of accomplishment and it’s therapeutic.”

9th Street reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu.

At top: Sophie and Harrison Stanley sit side by side at a desk in front of a TV while they work. Photo by Henry Haggart

Catholic congregation stays connected in a campus parking garage

After worshippers climb stairs to the fourth floor of the Science Drive Garage, they arrange folding chairs six feet apart. Choir members sing “Create a Clean Heart” as people settle in. 

When the song ends, The Rev. Michael Martin approaches them from the far end of Level 4, passing five choir members standing by spaced-apart microphones. Ten musicians sit behind them. 

The priest continues to a table covered with a forest-green cloth, three candles, an open bible, an upright text with an angel on its cover, and three small bottles of hand sanitizer. Behind that, a smaller table holds a large golden cross. A Duke Catholic Center banner blocks the glare of sunlight outside. 

The Rev. Michael Martin of Duke Catholic Center speaks during Mass on Level 4 of Science Drive Garage. Photo by Henry Haggart

All over the country people of faith have altered their worship rituals to adapt to life in a pandemic. In Durham, Duke Catholic Center has gone almost open air, staging Mass every Sunday in a campus garage a short walk from Cameron Stadium. 

Father Mike pulls down his mask to welcome the people before him, a mix of ages and races. He invites all to greet each other, but not by shaking hands the way they used to.

“Why don’t we stand and wave to the people around us and begin our celebration,” he says.  

Mask back on, the priest signals the congregation to sit. A young woman approaches the altar to read a passage from Isaiah from a smartphone.

Live music is a hallmark of parking-deck Mass, where the sounds of instruments and singers reverberate through the concrete skeleton of the garage. Photo by Henry Haggart

As she moves to her seat, a baby begins to cry, a familiar sound in church that is amplified here by the acoustics of cement walls. A nun quickly wipes down the altar with disinfecting wipes.

As Father Mike began his sermon on humility and one’s role as “a rock,” helpers set up a portable screen on top of four plastic storage boxes. Short clips of students encouraging others to join small group discussions begins to play. 

Instead of lining up during the Holy Eucharist, worshippers stay put. After pouring sanitizer on their hands, altar servers carry bowls to them, offering communion with stretched arms. Once servers move past them, those participating pull down their masks to place consecrated hosts in their mouths. 

Altar servers bring Holy Eucharists to worshippers, a delivery executed with outstretched arms for safe distancing. Photo by Henry Haggart

As the service ends, congregants collect their chairs and blankets and proceed to take stairs to their cars, waving to friends as they leave. 

Not only those attending the Catholic Center service, which are recorded and posted online, are touched by what happens in the garage

“My wife and I were walking on the Duke Trail this morning.The music coming from your service was beautiful,” @CoachMinnick commented on one online video post. “The music and acoustics sounded as if we were in a cathedral.”

9th Street reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

At top: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted so much, including the ability to host religious services in houses of worship. To adapt, Duke Catholic Center offers Mass in a campus parking garage on Sundays. Park on level 3, worshippers are told. And attend Mass on Level 4. Video by 9th Street Journal journalist Henry Haggart

Senate debate surprise: Cunningham hesitant on vaccine

After his first question prompted a puzzling response from the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, the debate moderator asked a second time. Would Cal Cunningham take a coronavirus vaccine that was approved by the end of the year?

“I would be hesitant,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to ask a lot of questions.”

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis pounced. 

“We just had a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine,” he said, waving his hands up and down for emphasis.

It felt like a role reversal for the two parties. It’s typically the Republicans who are skeptical of scientific expertise and public health measures such as mask requirements. 

But on Monday night, it was Cunningham who said it was “incumbent on every American” to question the government and Tillis who responded, “I trust Dr. Fauci,” referring to Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease doctor.

If you didn’t see it live, you will surely see it and read about it again in ads and mailings. The exchange was the most memorable moment in the first televised debate between Tillis and Cunningham, two candidates in one of the most competitive and costly Senate contests in the country. 

In the hour-long debate, the candidates sparred on healthcare and systemic racism, while also repeating barbs from their campaign ads. 

Cunningham quoted the Gospel of Matthew. Tillis called Biden Cunningham’s “running mate” and zinged Cunningham for using a tax incentive to renovate his butler’s pantry. 

“I didn’t know what a butler’s pantry was because we didn’t have them in the trailers I grew up in,” Tillis said. 

From the outset, the pandemic dominated the debate.

Before either candidate spoke, the debate moderator, WRAL anchor David Crabtree, explained that the candidates had been spaced 12 feet apart and had worn masks until reaching their podiums. 

Asked to comment on the president’s handling of the pandemic, Tillis sidestepped. He praised the administration’s travel ban and then pivoted to boast about his efforts to increase testing and access to personal protective equipment. 

Cunningham put the blame on President Trump and the federal government.

“I think that we are exceeding and experiencing an unprecedented failure of leadership in this country,” he said. “We have tens of thousands of Americans who have lost their lives, often without being able to be with their loved ones in their final hours. We’ve had millions of people out of the workforce, tons of jobs lost, but it’s also the lost moments. It’s missing high school graduations. It’s grandparents who can’t be there for birthdays, weddings, funerals.”

Cunningham also accused Tillis of dilly-dallying after being briefed on the coronavirus in January.   

“It took him almost six months to come up with priorities,” he said. “Instead, I was listening to North Carolinians, talking about the priorities I hear.”

Following the pattern of the president, who has called the coronavirus the “China virus,” Tillis shifted blame overseas.

“Make no mistake about it. China’s responsible for this crisis,” he said. 

And then came the surprising exchange over the COVID-19 vaccine. Cunningham defended his position, describing skepticism of government as one of the “finest traditions of America.”

“I think that’s incumbent on all of us right now in this environment with the way we’ve seen politics intervening in Washington,” he said.

“Cal’s a trial lawyer. He’s not a doctor,” Tillis replied. “He’s not a scientist. He’s not an epidemiologist. What he’s saying is what he thinks will get him elected. Because that’s what (Kamala) Harris said.”

Tillis and Cunningham are scheduled for two more debates on Sept. 22 and Oct. 1.