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Posts tagged as “Coronavirus”

Altered but open: Durham Farmers’ Market still connects vendors and patrons

Nearly every Saturday morning since 2007, Durham Farmers’ Market transformed Durham Central Park.

Usually, vendors rolled into Central Park Pavilion early, 6 or 7 a.m.  From vans, trucks and cars they unloaded tents, tables and stands to display squashes, greens, breads, jewelry and more local fare. By 8 a.m. customers arrived, quickly spawning a crowded mass that mingled, dashed and clumped, like ants navigating their mound. 

That charming, chaotic ritual came to an abrupt end on Saturday, March 21. No vendors, no shoppers until May.

In between, the market had to overcome a turnover in its leadership and hatch a new COVID-style way of doing business.

Despite significant changes, the market remains a place where people connect.

“It just feels really important to be here,” said Izzy Pezzulo, a vendor for Red Trail Grains. “Not only to be making the money that you need to continue farming, but also to just show up for the community and feed people in a way that feels safer to them.”

Durham Farmers’ Market ambassador Anna Beck holds a sign at the entrance of the market this fall. Photo by Henry Haggart

Closing

When pandemic-related shutdown orders started in Durham, Susan Sink, market manager at the time, was communicating with Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson about spacing proposals to keep the market open. She explained that every item would be pre-packaged and vendors would be spaced 20 feet apart, she said.

But city officials made the decision early in the pandemic to close all city-owned facilities built for groups or gatherings. Sink was told that the city owns Durham Central Park where the Durham Farmers’ Market takes place and Mayor Steve Schewel had made clear the farmers’ market had to close to protect public health, she said. 

There was no market for the next six weeks. 

“We felt that we needed to make sure that we weren’t drawing this huge crowd until there were safety protocols in place,” Schewel said. 

Signs posted around the market encourage visitors to look but not touch while shopping. Photo by Henry Haggart

To reopen, Sink had weekly phone calls with officials to discuss new regulations. There was a large group call between the Farmers’ Market staff and vendors too. Establishing long term changes in market operations in March was difficult, because no one was sure how long the pandemic would last. 

“I do think the biggest challenge was mindset,” Sink said. “People did not believe how lethal the virus could be. And no one believed the situation would last so long, so they wanted easy stopgaps and not long-term marketing and distribution solutions.”

Jack Pleasant, president of the Farmers’ Market board of directors, went from attending monthly meetings about the market to spending 20 to 30 hours a week trying to get it reopened. 

“We were dealing with things that were flying every day in different directions,” Pleasant said. 

To add to the complexity, some staff left. Angel Woodrum left her assistant market manager job because she was worried about her safety at work, Pleasant said. Sink stayed on as manager until May and helped with the reopening, but also decided to leave.

Emily-Kate Hannapel, a former assistant market manager who was working as an interior designer, volunteered to manage the market for two months during the search for a new manager.

“It was pretty scary because from one perspective, you’re trying to do everything that you’ve been told to create a safe space and a safe event. But especially in May, there was still so much that we didn’t know about the virus and how it spread,” Hannapel said. 

Despite the uncertainty, Hannapel said she felt the responsibility to try to make sure the Durham Farmers’ Market operated through the pandemic. 

“The whole point of having a really strong local food system is so that it can step up and work in moments of crisis,” she said. “We have all of these farmers who are growing food and we have people who want food and who are nervous about going into grocery stores. It just felt like this moment that our local food system, which is so strong here, really had to step up to meet that demand.”

In July, board members appointed Michelle Greene the new market manager. She had been a loyal customer of the farmers’ market for ten years, but had never worked on the management side. Catherine Rudolph was hired in August to replace Angel Woodrum as assistant market manager.

“I knew the atmosphere, but you think you know how a market works just by going and visiting, but you don’t,” Greene said. “It’s a very different world being a visitor compared to managing.”

A handwashing station stands near the entrance of the market within sight of pandemic shopping rules. Photo by Henry Haggart

Opening

Before COVID-19, the market was also open on Wednesdays from April until October. On May 2, only the Saturday market reopened to the public. 

It looks a lot different.

The market is now “one-way,” with one entrance and one exit. Everyone must travel the vendors’ loop in the same direction to avoid getting dangerously close to anyone else.

Customers must remain six feet apart. They are not supposed to touch products, but must wait for a vendor to help. There is a hand-washing station at the front of the market, and volunteers are posted to make sure customers are aware of the rules. 

Vendor stands stand at least 10 feet apart. Because of that, the market can now accommodate up to 40 vendors; in the past it hosted around 60.

Reducing the number of vendors from 40 to 60 happened naturally, because a number of vendors, such as Elodie Farms, chose to conduct their sales through online, contactless pick-up instead of through the farmers’ market, according to Greene. 

“We make a map every week for what the market will look like that weekend so that the customers have a guide for how they can get in and out the fastest, if they do feel that they want to run in and run out,” said Greene.

The faster-paced approach makes the farmers’ market a safer shopping experience, but can also make it more difficult for customers to connect the way they used to.

“I come to the farmers’ market almost every Saturday because it’s my sense of community, it’s a place to touch in with where I live,” customer Meredith Emmett said. “It’s just harder to talk to people and recognize people. I did just see someone I haven’t seen in a long, long time but it doesn’t have the same spirit of connection. It feels more like I’m grocery shopping as opposed to coming to the town square.” 

Red Trail Grains vendor Izzy Pezzulo said she cherishes connections she makes at the market in spite of masks and distancing. Photo by Henry Haggart

Despite the market’s redesign for social distancing, vendors say that it still offers them some much-needed social interaction.

“Despite the circumstances,” the market is “really life giving,” said Pezzulo, the Red Tail Grains vendor

Pezzulo formed a friendship from the market with Ahbi Bügger, who manages the stand for Celebrity Dairy, when they began trading their products with each other.

Bügger had been farming in Peru and Brazil for six months when she noticed other people scrambling to find flights back to the United States. She realized she needed to leave, so she boarded a flight to North Carolina, where her parents live, and moved to Pittsboro, which is home to the Celebrity Dairy Farm.

“When I first started, people would come up, buy the cheese and leave — barely a hello was even said,” Bügger said. “And now, there are some lines and some waiting because people stay a minute.” 

Bügger still prioritizes a safe shopping experience, but has appreciated that her customers are willing to spend some more time when they stop at her stand. 

“The fear is subsiding a little bit, which I think is awesome,” she said. “We need to continue to stay vigilant about safety, but it also makes my heart feel a little warm that people are really committed to supporting us and committed to connecting with the farmers that sell their products and intentionally making connections.”

Jennifer Tolliver, a farmer at Botanist and Barrel who manages their stand on Saturdays, decided that leaving her house for the market was worth the risk because of the mental health benefits. 

“We have medical professionals in the family, and we talked to them about it and everyone seems pretty much on the same page as far as the fact that being outdoors, socially distanced, plus masks — it’s a pretty low risk,” she said. 

The market is expected to remain open through the winter season, still outdoors in Durham Central Park. Current market restrictions will likely remain. 

“I do have a call with the Durham County extension office every few weeks and we go over what’s new. The winter has different things that may come,” Greene said. “We used to think we could predict things and now we don’t.”

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

At top: The pandemic has altered foot traffic and much more at Durham Farmers’ Market. What once was free form is now tightly choreographed. Photo by Henry Haggart 

School is online, but programs bring some kids together to learn

Once the Durham Board of Education decided in July to move school online, members began planning learning centers – supervised spaces where students unable to stay at home could attend virtual classes. 

“We knew there would be children whose parents are essential workers, or who didn’t have anyone at home,” board member Natalie Beyer said. “We’ve been reading about what other progressive cities have been doing to take care of children, so we pushed hard for it.” 

Currently, Durham Public Schools funds four learning center sites: at Eno Valley and WG Pearson Magnet elementary schools for students in grades pre-K through 5, and at Carrington and Shepard middle schools for students in grades 6 through 12.

Local non-profits have set up similar centers in Durham too. Some residents have organized informal sites – a case of parents helping parents in the face of these unpredictable times. As of this week, DPS centers serve 300 students.

Like most things throughout this pandemic, launching these spaces required creativity and caution. By combining state guidelines and listening to their students, public school administrators created strategies to guard against COVID infection and help children learn.

Kezia Goodwin takes the temperature of a student in a classroom at Kate’s Korner. Photo by Henry Haggart

Days at the centers do and do not look like school days. Students arrive at around the same time, about 9 a.m. Once inside they remain in a classroom pod of 10 students. District staff supervise them as they attend online school through each student’s respective Google classroom or zoom link. When the day ends, parents or other caretakers pick them up.

Early on, educators faced challenges, including keeping track of students’ different, and sometimes conflicting schedules, said Tracy Super-Edwards, coordinator of extended learning for DPS. 

“The students are from many schools, all in one classroom, you know. Even though you have 10 students, they could be from 10 different schools and different grade levels, and the educators have to juggle them all,” said Super-Edwards, who oversees the DPS centers.

Initially, the DPS sites drew few students, possibly due to family’s uncertainty that the sites could keep kids safe from COVID-19, according to Super-Edwards. But now, since neither staff nor students have been diagnosed with COVID, interest has grown and the centers are nearly full.

“I think now that we’ve been doing it now for a couple of months, there’s more validity behind it,” Super-Edwards said. “Parents see it’s working, see they’re kids love it, see that they’re safe, and so now we have a lot more students trying to get in.”

Kate’s Korner hosts a DPS Foundation HOPE Learning Center, a program for public school students whose families struggle financially, live in foster care, or have parents who are essential workers. The site has adopted multiple strategies to keep children and staff safe. 

Like DPS, Kate’s Korner keeps students in small pods, requires masks, and screens kids by taking their temperature before they enter every day. They have cleaners do a full COVID spray-down cleaning weekly.

“We do a lot of hand washing, a lot of sanitizing, and managing keeping kids out of each-other’s space, which is difficult. Some people might say [the COVID spray] is a little extreme, but you know we’re keeping everyone safe,” said Kezia Goodwin, Kate’s Korner founder.

Kate’s Korner was set to open initially as drop-in child care center, but after COVID hit and derailed Goodwin’s plans, she jumped at the opportunity to help the DPS Foundation’s plans to help the community.

Through partnership with Durham county, the DPS Foundation, The YMCA, and Student U, a Durham education nonprofit, Kate’s Korner doesn’t charge students who enroll. 

“With time, energy and effort that we were giving them, the students are getting there, and we’re helping them improve. We’re serving kids with some of the least opportunity” Goodwin said.

Durham Museum of Life and Science, through its Museum Clubhouse, also has opened an alternative to attending online school at home.

The program is an extension of a camp they produced over the summer, taking what they had learned and expanding it with educators and more enrichment programs, leading kids through exhibits and fun themes throughout the week, said Carly Apple, director of STEM learning at the museum and overseer of the Clubhouse.

This program charges tuition, with the cost varying depending on how many days a week students participate. Enrolling four days a week between Oct. 19 and Nov. 13 cost museum members $952 and non-members, $1,048, according to the program’s website.

“Some days, students are more fidgety than other days; some days they need more or less attention. We try to give them activities so they’re not just at their computers all day,” Apple said.

One of the most important aspects of these centers is the chance to socialize, Apple said.

“We have a way to give kids safe socialization, which is something that we value. A lot of parents are worried about isolation with their kids. This was a way that kids could safely, I mean as safely as possible, they could interact with other kids,” Apple said.

Apple said the kids can play games socially distanced, and take daily tours of museum exhibits, ways to keep active and social.

Angela Caraway helps a student with online classwork at Kate’s Korner. Photo by Henry Haggart

Every day, the staff is learning from the needs of their students and adapting their policies throughout the months. The general, yet surprising, consensus among these administrators, though, is that kids are good at wearing masks.

“They’re much more mature about it than a lot of adults I know,” Apple said. “They adapt so quickly, and sure we have to remind them sometimes about small stuff and make sure the masks fit, but they’re just really good about it.”

That said, sometimes they need a break. At the DPS learning centers, staff have marked squares on floors distant from others where students can pull down masks for a minute or two when they need a break.

An unintended benefit of the centers is that they are giving at least some in the school district confidence that is possible for children to safely attend school in a COVID-adapted world. 

“Our staff and our kids are healthy, so I think the fact is that if you put the safety measures in place, and you follow them daily, you have a great chance of preventing spread,” Goodwin said.

“These kids who should be in school, need to go back to school,” she added.

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

At top: Ashley Polk, a teacher at Kate’s Korner, helps a student during an online class. Polk said assisting students with the technical side of remote learning is what takes up most of her time at work. Photo by Henry Haggart

The vote: almost normal

I voted the other day and was struck that the experience was pretty impressive – and almost normal.

The impressive part: For all the claims about potential problems at the polls, I was impressed how organized everything was. I decided to vote that afternoon because the county website said there was only an eight-minute wait. (It ended up being more like five.) 

I got checked in quickly and directed to the ballot station. A worker there handed me a ballot, reminded me there were choices on both sides, and pointed me to the voting booths. I waited a moment for one to open and then voted just like I do every election. I put my ballot through the scanner, got a “NO BULL / I VOTED” sticker and left.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

The almost normal part: The hand sanitizer, the dots on the floor telling me where to stand, and the pen, which I got to keep. 

Still, for all the brouhaha about problems, it felt pretty routine (for, um, voting in a pandemic).

To explore this, our student journalists are publishing a series of stories we’re calling “The Vote.” The stories document the routine and not-so routine aspects of voting in 2020. The stories explain how ballot counting works, why you’re getting a free pen, how they wipe down the voting booths, what it’s like to vote by mail and vote curbside and what Derek Bowens, Durham’s finicky director of elections, plays to wake up on Election Day.

It’s an election we won’t forget. And we get to keep the pen.

Above photo of Durham voting stations by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

A wad of towels and a spray bottle to keep voters safe

Wearing a plastic face shield, a blue surgical mask, blue gloves and a white surgical gown that reaches down to her pink running shoes, Maria Quiros looks like many of the health workers battling the coronavirus in hospitals across the country. 

But this is no hospital. It’s the early voting site at Duke’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. And Quiros’s job isn’t to heal the sick — it’s to protect thousands of voters from the virus.

Her outfit is a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic has transformed voting, usually no more risky than visiting the county library, into an activity that is potentially life-threatening.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

“It makes everything feel very surreal,” said Emma DeRose, a Duke senior and volunteer poll worker who helped wipe down the voting stations with disinfectant. “Obviously, we know a pandemic is going on. But I think Duke is kind of in a bubble in a way. We’ve had a pretty low case count, and it doesn’t really feel that present. And then I think you get to the polling center, and you’re seeing these people, including myself, just all decked out, and it’s like ‘woah.’”

Voting, like going to the grocery store or to school, has become a stroll through a minefield. And, since early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, Quiros, DeRose and others have kept voters safe with a wad of paper towels and a spray bottle of disinfectant. 

According to an Aug. 14 memo from the North Carolina State Board of Elections, workers at voting sites are required to perform “ongoing and routine environmental cleaning and disinfection of high-touch areas” with an EPA-approved disinfectant for COVID-19.

On a recent Friday, Quiros stood at the left side of the voting room in Karsh. She had her dark hair in a bun, and her eyes scanned the booths. As soon as a voter left a booth, Quiros scurried over and began cleaning. 

She started by wiping the bottom of the polling booth. Next, she cleaned one side, and then the other, finishing with a horizontal swipe along the front edge.  

While waiting, Quiros also directed voters to empty booths or helped them follow the blue arrows to the spot where they could scan their ballots — she’s both the cleanup crew and stage director. 

It’s tedious work, but Quiros is staying positive. She’s confident that the polling place is safe for voters.

“Because we are taking care of them,” she said.

Quiros said she has been working 12 hours a day since Oct. 15. She has help. There are 10 to 15 poll workers during each shift, and these workers rotate between various positions, from ballot tabulator to sanitation worker, said DeRose, who was greeting people and handing out pens. 

“I think just us being very thorough with the cleaning provides a sense of comfort,” DeRose said. 

This Friday afternoon, Quiros was accompanied by Kate Young, 72, who had started her cleaning duty at 1:30 p.m. 

“You get used to it,” she said, referring to the protective gear she was wearing. “This is what we have to do now.” 

She has volunteered as a poll worker for four years, and she said this voting site is far better run than the one at the Devil’s Den in 2016. 

“It was a madhouse,” she said, chuckling. 

Uncertainty looms over this election, but Young isn’t worried. She prefers to focus on helping in small ways, a lesson she has learned from her years with the Peace Corps, End Hunger in Durham, and other activist work.

“You do what you can,” she said.

At top: Poll volunteer Emma DeRose wipes down a voting booth after a voter leaves. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street journal

North Carolina likely to shatter voter turnout record

Four years ago, the number of absentee and in-person early voting ballots cast in North Carolina crushed records. But those records didn’t stand a chance against this year’s stunning numbers. 

Absentee ballots, which include mail-in and in-person early voting, have revealed the intense interest in the 2020 election. A surge of mail-in voting could be expected during a global pandemic, but the numbers suggest COVID-19 is not the sole reason behind the state’s record-shattering count. 

The tally is so staggering that Damon Circosta, chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections, said he “absolutely believe[s] that this will be the largest turnout in the history of North Carolina.” 

What the numbers tell us

With two days of early voting still to go, more than 4 million North Carolina voters have already cast their ballots. For perspective, 2.5 million people had voted at this point in 2016, and the early voting period ended with 3.1 million total ballots cast.

According to data from the State Board of Elections, more Democrats have voted (1,556,483) than Republicans (1,286,508) so far. 

Democratic ballots account for 38.1% of total ballots cast, compared with 31.5% for Republicans. Unaffiliated voters account for another 29.9% of ballots cast.

There’s a larger discrepancy between parties when it comes to the number of absentee mail-in ballots requested. The deadline to ask for a mail-in ballot was Oct. 27, and requests from Democrats were over double the number of requests from Republicans.

Unaffiliated voters also requested more mail-in ballots than did Republicans – a little under twice as many.  In total, only 287,552 Republican voters chose to request a mail-in ballot, making up 19% of all requests.

The most revealing aspect of this year’s vote is the amount of early voting that has been done in person.

Compared with 2016, nearly 1 million more voters cast their ballot at in-person early voting sites. This is often referred to as one-stop voting, because you can register and cast your ballot at the same time. 

Even with the threat of the coronavirus, in-person early voters account for about 78% of all absentee ballots cast. 

The massive jump in the number of mail-in ballots compared to 2016 – more than a sixfold increase, to 883,964 – can partly be explained by the pandemic. Voters who would normally head to the polls are now sending in their vote from a safe distance. But the overall growth of early voting suggests a bigger force at work.

Mac McCorkle, a Duke University public policy professor and longtime Democratic consultant, said the pandemic has actually opened up new avenues of voting, because mail-in ballots are now more widely accessible than ever before.

Strong feelings about the race are also likely playing a role, he said. There’s passionate voters on both sides, and that increases overall turnout. “The realistic view is that each side’s turnout enthusiasm magnifies and expands the other’s,” McCorkle said. 

Circosta, chair of the North Carolina Board of Elections, said he also sees more energy and enthusiasm from voters. “This year, everybody is talking about [the election],” he said. “It’s not just in the media and not just on the news, it’s a topic of constant conversation.”

The influx of early voters is a relatively new phenomenon, Circosta said. The rhythms of election years have gradually changed as the state has allowed more early voting. The trend began in 2008, when North Carolina first established one-stop voting. 

“There used to be an Election Day,” Circosta said, “and now Election Day is like the last call for voting.” 

Election Day will still be busy, but Circosta says counting all the votes won’t be the problem. The state is well suited for the high numbers of early ballots it’s receiving this year.

“North Carolina is lucky to have laws in place that have let us begin the preparation for counting all of the absentee ballots, both for early voting and absentee vote by mail,” Circosta said. “I anticipate us being able to achieve that task quicker than most other states.”

Voters lined up on the first day of early voting – and kept coming. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

‘I voted’ pens are an odd souvenir of the pandemic

When it was time to buy pens for the 2020 election, the North Carolina State Board of Elections went big:  6 million. Well, 5,909,820 to be exact. That’s enough to cover 520 miles and weigh more than six school buses.  

The pens “minimize the potential spread of the coronavirus because the voter will be the only person to touch their own pen,” said Noah Grant, a spokesman for the board of elections. Also, they’re a souvenir of an election you’ll never forget.

They’re paid for by a $1 million grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, a pro-democracy group funded by tech companies and foundations.

An occasional series on the 2020 election in North Carolina.

Grant helped design the retractable, metallic “I voted in the 2020 election!” pens. But not all early voters got one because the big order arrived a few days late. 

Archie Services in Greensboro, winner of the state’s bid for the cheapest pen, had just under a month to fulfill and deliver the pens to over 85 sites across the state.

Durham voter, David Lorimer, shows off his free pen that he says he’ll use in the future. 

The day before early voting began, Brent Archie, owner of Archie Services, had to take matters into his own hands when he realized that some polling sites wouldn’t get the custom pens in time. 

As large shipments of pens sat lost in a Chicago warehouse, he and his team desperately wiped their Charlotte warehouses clean of other types of pens. When that wasn’t enough, Archie drove to his Atlanta warehouses, covered over 1,200 miles in 18 hours, and personally helped deliver 180,000 backup pens the night before early voting began on Oct. 15.

“I really wanted everyone to have that pen the first day,” he said. Still, he was disappointed the first voters didn’t get the souvenir version. 

“A Bic is a Bic, but it’s not our voting pen,” he said. 

Sites eventually received the thicker, hourglass-shaped pens. But it’s hard to please everyone. 

Durham voter Amady Barrie wished he had that black backup pen instead. 

“Oddly enough, when I was writing with it, I was thinking, ‘How come every pen isn’t like a sleek Bic pen?’” said Barrie. 

With only five days left until election day, 3 million North Carolinians have already voted in-person. That leaves about 3 million pens. Is that enough to cover the rest of early voting and Election Day? State officials believe it is. If not, the state board of elections is prepared to dip into federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, according to Grant. If a polling center runs out of pens, the site can request additional ones or change to the process of collecting and sanitizing pens for reuse.

At some locations, the pen replaces the popular “I voted” sticker. Many counties cannot afford the transmission-reducing sticker dispenser used in Durham, nor do they have the spare election workers to cut rolls of stickers into singles, said Grant.

Durham, however, is still giving stickers – a custom version that says “No bull, I voted.” 

On Tuesday, voters left the early voting site at the Durham County Main Library with the sticker and pen. 

Bianca Evans, a self-proclaimed “pen lady,” said she was excited to receive one and plans on using it “until it stops working.” 

Others were not so enthusiastic. 

“It’s just a pen,” said voter Donta Cash.

Grant views the pen in a larger context. “It’s a memento to how much our world has changed in 2020.”

Durham voter David Lorimer shows off his free pen. Photo by Bella Caracta | The 9th Street Journal

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