For revealing a Durham County jail inmate’s lethal exposure to coronavirus, 9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley has won the 2021 Frank Barrows Award for Excellence in Student Journalism.
The North Carolina Open Government Coalition award recognizes student journalists whose work uses public records, open meetings or press access to shine light on how government performs.
In October, Quigley published a story revealing that Darrell Kersey died of COVID-19 at Duke Regional Hospital after contracting coronavirus while in the custody of Durham County Detention Facility.
The High Point man was sentenced to a state prison term by then. But he remained in the county jail due to pandemic-related delays in moving people to state prisons.
Sheriff Clarence Birkhead did not disclose the fatal exposure. Quigley, a Duke University senior, did after obtaining Kersey’s death certificate and scouring county and state records.
Those records detailed who was detained in the Durham County facility, Kersey’s criminal case and sentencing, and COVID-19 deaths among state prison inmates.
“During the past year, a wave of COVID-19 cases and related deaths occurred in North Carolina prisons and jails. Quigley’s use of public records and inmate databases situated Kersey’s death in the context of a statewide — if not nationally significant — story about health and safety in carceral facilities,” today’s award announcement states.
Read more about the award and Quigley’s work here.
At top: Dryden Quigley, a Duke University senior, covers Durham County for The 9th Street Journal.
A neighborhood email list promising leftover vaccines launched Bruce, a diabetic Durhamite, on an odyssey. In want and need of a COVID-19 shot, the 76-year-old said he walked through pouring rain to the vaccination clinic at Duke University.
When he arrived, soggy but hopeful, the nurses told him he had been misinformed — they were not taking walk-ins.
“It wasn’t the end of the world, but the principle of it just seemed so crazy,” said Bruce. “It’s just the whole vagueness and randomness of it all, you know?”
Bruce, who got the shot days later, isn’t alone. As the gates inch open, Durhamites are still hustling to get jabbed, flooding social media sites for tips to lock down fast-filling vaccination appointments or get leftover shots.
On reddit pages and Facebook groups, through neighborhood email lists or by word of mouth, people are sharing insights about how to get immunized faster. Many report signing up on waitlists for multiple vaccination sites in and outside of Durham. Some have driven hours to get to well-stocked clinics.
Most people The 9th Street Journal asked about their vaccine quests declined to share their full names. But their stories display how hard some people are working to get vaccines. Becca had more luck than Bruce as a walk-in. She got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine Tuesday by simply showing-up at the Walgreens on Fayetteville Street at the end of the day. Nabbing the leftover dose saved Becca from driving two-and-a-half hours from Durham to a coastal Onslow County clinic that she heard about on her neighborhood email list. But the shot stood for more than saved time.
“It means freedom!” cheered Becca as she waited 15 minutes in the store for potential post-vaccination side-effects. “It means I can hug my friends and go to the gym, and it means I can not stress about ending up in the hospital.”
Social media crowdsourcing
Durhamites discussing out-of-county vaccination options are flooding the r/bullcity reddit board.
User u/_Brandobaris_ said he couldn’t find vaccine appointments via the state health department, county health department or Walgreens when he became eligible in late February. So, he got creative.
“Using friends and reddit, I found hiDrb.com and a couple other NC counties and pharmacies,” he wrote. He joined their waitlists, too.
Ultimately, though, it was his wife’s incessant refreshing of the Walgreens vaccination site that ended up saving the day, he reported. She managed to get them both appointments at a location in Chapel Hill last week, where they received their first doses.
Lisa, a 42-year-old Durhamite whose health issues place her in Group 4, told 9th Street that she had visited over 16 websites trying to find a vaccine appointment. Her plea for help on the r/bullcity page generated hundreds of responses and guidance on where to get a vaccine. Lisa said she has a jab scheduled for Wednesday in Greensboro.
“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m a very savvy computer user, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who’s less computer-savvy or doesn’t have a computer to try and navigate all this. There’s just too much information and not a single repository to have it all in one place.”
Bruce said he got on Duke Health’s vaccination waitlist back in December. But after weeks of waiting, he started looking elsewhere. He decided to call the Duke Primary Care Clinic. They put him on their waitlist, too.
“And then again, weeks go by and nothing happens,” Bruce said.
After his fruitless walk through the rain, he finally found the correct email to request an appointment. He received his second dose on March 2.
Bruce knew he wasn’t the only person having trouble. He said a friend has a competition among loved ones to see who will drive the farthest in order to get the vaccine. The friend’s nephew claims the top spot, having driven two-and-a-half hours to the Hertford County town of Ahoskie.
Jamal Patterson, a security guard from Graham County working at a vaccination clinic at Duke’s Blue Devil Tower on Wednesday, said he hoped to secure a leftover vaccine at the end of his shift. His boss said that extra doses might be available to him and his co-workers, he reported. That didn’t work out on two previous days, but he wasn’t giving up.
“At the end of the workday, if they have some leftover, I can be like ‘Hey!’” he said, hopeful it would be his day.
On May 26, 2020, working mom Cara August laced up a pair of roller skates for the first time in over 30 years. She swung open her front door and shakily skated out into her suburban Durham neighborhood, too excited to wait for her protective knee and elbow pads to be delivered. She was finally taking some time for herself.
“It made me feel empowered to make some sort of choice — to do something fun that was still safe and didn’t put anybody else in jeopardy,” said August, who works a day job in communications.
August joined legions of roller skating enthusiasts across the country who, over the past year, have strapped on a set of wheels and taken to the streets — whether in a city park or in a cul de sac.
In Durham, the activity became a way for locals to get outside and move during quarantine. That’s visible during a quick drive past open spaces downtown like vacant parking lots or Durham Central Park, where skaters freestyle moves across the pavement.
“We’ve seen a big increase in outdoor activity, and roller skating is part of that,” said Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) Assistant Director Thomas Dawson.
With piqued interest among Durhamites, Dawson says DPR hopes to launch roller skating classes in 2021 or 2022.
In November 2020, DPR announced its plan to buy Wheels Fun Park, a historic Durham roller rink. The city aims to revamp the venue into a community and aquatics center in the next few years, and Dawson expects the roller rink won’t be going anywhere.
“Most likely there will be a strong voice for preserving the roller skate rink,” he said.
While he doesn’t want to make any promises until hearing directly from Durham’s community, he noted that “the purchase of this historic site has brought a lot of groups out of the woodwork who love the Wheels roller facility.”
Eddie Watson, founder of the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association, is excited to see this Durham staple stick around. Watson, who has skated for 30 years, is thrilled that roller skating is “in the spotlight,” mentioning how he has seen the sport pop up on Good Morning America, in Usher videos and all over social media.
Increased visibility like this has caused a surge in demand for skates, especially during the pandemic. By May 16, 2020, U.S. Google searches for “roller skates” reached an all-time high.
“I ordered Moxi Skates and it took six months to get them because roller skating blew up so much,” August said.
Global brands like Moxi and Impala claim three-to six-month wait times, frustrating customers who are waiting for their wheels to arrive. The Wall Street Journal reported that manufacturing parts from China and Taiwan have taken twice as long to be delivered. The popularity resulted in supply-chain issues, which were exacerbated by coronavirus restrictions, including limited production from U.S. manufacturing facilities.
Roller skating dates back to the Victorian era when touch between young men and women was strictly forbidden. Socially approved skating permitted young couples to visit one another without the taboo of physical contact. Ironically, such social distancing is useful today.
In the 1900s, skating in the U.S. became integral to the civil rights movement. Some of the first protests against racial discrimination were skate-ins, where African-American skaters protested the segregation of roller rinks. As highlighted in the 2020 Emmy Award-nominated documentary “United Skates”, roller skating established “families” in Black communities, even after desegregation.
Still, roller rinks continued racial discrimination by terming Black skating events “adult nights” or soul nights. By redefining these nights to celebrate Black culture, regional and personal skating styles emerged. From Detroit’s “Open-House” Slide to Bill Butler’s “Jammin’”, style skating developed in tandem with new waves of electronic dance music.
Fun for the whole family
Gearing up to teach new and experienced skaters of all ages, Watson emphasized the physical and mental health benefits of skating.
“Physically, it helps your lung capacity,” he said. “[Mentally,] a skate rink for three or four hours maybe takes you away from any issues—especially with good music and good people.”
Both The American Health Association and the President’s Council for Physical Fitness confirm Watson’s words. Roller skating causes 50% less stress on joints than running, is five times less dangerous than biking, and provides a “complete aerobic workout.” It’s also a great way to get children moving.
On top of the physical and mental benefits, roller skating is a sport for all ages.
“I’ve seen six, seven-year-olds catch on real good,” said Watson, “and up to 80 and 90-year-olds still skating — whether it be just a regular shuffle skate type of thing or dance skate.”
After seeing their mom’s newfound love for skating, August’s daughters, ages three and seven, asked for skates of their own. By moving carpets, clearing furniture and opening doors in her house, August created a small roller rink where she could teach her two daughters to skate on the hardwood floors.
Parents have been particularly affected by the pandemic as they balance work, children and self-care. “We’re all stressed and scared,” August said, noting that it’s been hard to find time for herself.
According to recent PEW Research Center results, working moms are 11% more likely than working dads to say balancing life and work responsibilities became more difficult during the pandemic. With working women spending 50% more time on child care than their husbands, a new study by A Great Place to Work and the Maven Clinic says women are 28% more likely than their husbands to become burnt-out.
Pilar Timpane, a filmmaker and mother of two, describes it as two choices at odds with each other.
“You end up feeling like you should either be doing something for your kids or doing something for your work,” she said.
Wanting to find a hobby that she could easily learn while spending time alone, Timpane took up roller skating after feeling empowered by women she saw skating on Instagram. She quickly fell in love with the pair of skates she was gifted for Christmas.
“I think of roller skating as a good time; it’s just joyful,” she said.
Reminiscing on their preteen skating days, both Timpane and August quickly caught back on. They especially love skating because it can be a solo adventure or a family affair.
“We’re a family on wheels,” Timpane said, noting how she roller skates while her husband bikes, her three-year-old daughter scooters and her one-year-old naps in her stroller. When Timpane skates alone, she revels in the little moments to enjoy the physical activity.
Similarly, August’s family is her “little skate crew.” But August also makes time for herself. Putting on her headset and zoning-out, she “grooves,” she says,”skate-dancing” on Durham’s iconic American Tobacco Trail.
The roller skating revival is one silver lining of the pandemic. August sees it as a way to connect with her kids, too.
“Hopefully they’ll remember and look back on it fondly. Like ‘yeah, that year sucked, but at least we learned how to roller skate.’”
9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top: Before the pandemic, the Raleigh-Durham Skaters Association threw skating parties throughout the state. Photo courtesy of Eddie Watson.
Mayor Steve Schewel expressed confidence in Durham Public Schools teachers Monday as they began welcoming some children back to their classrooms for the first time in a year, but he said he was concerned about threats against school board members who voted — over the objections of teachers and parents worried about COVID-19 risks — to reopen the schools.
“Our teachers in Durham are so dedicated, and they are going to work their hardest to make this a fantastic experience for their students,” Schewel said in an interview. “Still, this is very difficult to have a classroom where you have to teach both in-person and remotely. It is really hard. It is still going to be an imperfect spring of schooling in Durham and across the country.”
The difficulties of balancing remote and in-person teaching caused hesitation over the decision to reopen. Happi Adams, a Jordan High School teacher, said she was disappointed that high schools will let students return to in-person learning this semester, rather than finish the year with online-only instruction.
“I don’t think in-person is going to a particularly meaningful or warm and connected experience because of the way we have to do things under the COVID safety protocols,” Adams said. “A few of my students from my classes will be in the building with me, and then the majority of the students that I’m teaching will still be interacting with us via Zoom.”
According to the DPS website, all schools will hold only-online asynchronous learning on “Wellness Wednesdays.” Elementary students will be in person for the other four days a week. Middle and high school students will attend on Mondays-Tuesdays or Thursdays-Fridays, in three rotating cohorts.
Elementary schools reopened their classrooms Monday. The four small specialty high schools (City of Medicine Academy, J.D. Clement Early College High School, Middle College at Durham Tech, and New Tech High School) will reopen for a cohort of students Thursday, while the remaining high schools and middle schools will reopen April 8.
Some teachers and board members had argued that the schools should not reopen until all DPS employees had been fully vaccinated.
Board members threatened
Disagreement over reopening has led to threats against DPS board members. Mike Lee, the DPS board vice chair, said during a board meeting on March 2 that teachers had threatened him and his family members. Schewel denounced the “vitriolic attacks and even threats” in a statement released last week.
Local law enforcement is investigating one threat from a parent, he said.
“One parent wrote on social media, ‘If my child is that one in a thousand that gets it and develops serious symptoms … I’ll shoot down every member of the DPS school board,’ ” Schewel wrote. “This is horrifying and scary. I denounce this language in the strongest possible terms.”
Schewel expressed concern about the “particularly profound” nature of threats leveled against Black and Brown board members. The school board’s vote to start reopening this week was 4-3, with all four Black members of the board in the majority. The board’s one Hispanic and two white members favored reopening at a later date.
“A threat like this is so much more threatening to a Black person than to white people because — even if it’s the exact same threat — Black people have so much more often been the victims of people who carry out threats like this,” Schewel said. “We have to acknowledge that, but the threats against anybody are not OK. The anger level that has built up around this is not helpful to our community.”
Schewel says he hopes Durham residents will “lower the temperature” on their anger and focus their political energy towards progressive fights. In Raleigh, he said, the General Assembly is “undermining public education at every turn” by underfunding schools and underpaying teachers.
“Durham is a city with a widely shared progressive vision,” Schewel said. “As I expressed in the letter I wrote, 20 miles from here in Raleigh in the General Assembly there are all kinds of things going on which are antithetical to the progressive consensus that we share in Durham. We need to be focusing our political energy not on angry attacks on each other but on doing the work that we need to do to get the state policy that we all agree on here in Durham.”
The sky was pitch black, but Hannah Slocum was on the move. Rolling out her purple yoga mat and cueing a new playlist, she turned on her Zoom camera and led a yoga class to the rising sun.
Slocum’s 6:30 a.m. virtual class via Yoga off East drew six online participants. Even her mother tuned in from Massachusetts. It felt like much of the world was still asleep as the sky turned from pink to blue. But Slocum, bright and attentive, slowly guided her students through each movement. Her instructions: “do whatever feels good in your body this morning.”
With over 36 million people practicing yoga regularly in the United States, the mental health benefits of yoga are proven. According to Yoga Alliance, 86% of people in the U.S. who practice yoga said it reduced their stress; 67% says it makes them feel better emotionally.
The global pandemic has exacerbated mental health struggles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, by June 2020, 40% of adults in the U.S. struggled with mental health or substance abuse.
“The world expects us to function as is, and just keep going as is,” said Stephany Mejia, a Triangle-based therapist and registered yoga instructor. “But the reality is that our functioning has been limited—[especially] living through a pandemic.”
Through her practice as a therapist and social worker, Mejia encourages her clients to practice yoga to help them live in a moment outside of their heads, adding that “yoga isn’t about debating the thoughts. It’s about being with the body.”
Durham’s yoga community has adapted with socially distanced alternatives to meet people where they are—at home. Most studios hold weekly sessions online.
“Yoga is an invitation to set aside judgment and inner criticism,” said Kathryn Smith, owner of Yoga off East. “It’s an invitation to meet yourself where you are without trying to fix anything.”
Aside from Slocum’s online class, Yoga Off East also holds outdoor, socially distanced classes at Oval Park.
“The whole point of a studio is to meet people where they are,” Smith said. “If people aren’t ready to practice [in-person] in the studio, we’ll meet you at home.”
With the pandemic’s restrictions, some independent yoga instructors created entirely new virtual studios. Shakira Bethea, an independent yoga teacher and massage therapist in Durham, began an online studio focused on community building and healing.
Partnering with Sahaja Space, a yoga studio in Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, Bethea begins each morning at 7:30 a.m. by either teaching or joining in Collective Care, a daily yoga class she began to combat stress and “bring people to their center” during the 2020 presidential election. It continued blossoming long afterward into a community of up to 15 individuals. They begin each day with active yoga poses and meditation exercises.
Bethea explained that creating a “small, virtual space” offers a collective way to alleviate extra anxieties brought on by the pandemic and current affairs. It’s a space where, Bethea said, someone can help people “take on all the fear and worry” they harbor internally and “share it so you don’t have to walk with it by yourself.”
Bethea also offers a sliding scale payment system, with monthly prices as low as five dollars.
“Once we can take care of ourselves, we can have more care and more love for the people around us,” Bethea said.
According to Harvard Medical School, stressful situations trigger the “fight or flight response,” leaving people stuck in a trauma-based response system.
“If we don’t regulate our nervous system, some of the consequences are chronic health conditions,” said Mejia, the therapist.
This can include persistent anxiety and other related symptoms that have increased for many people in 2020. Mejia explained that when we are anxious, depressed, or worried, our bodies respond by increasing production of cortisol, the stress hormone. “[That] can result in a constant state of ‘I can’t calm down,’” she said.
According to a study published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, yoga reduces cortisol levels, which can decrease stress and bring relief in depression.
But achieving those benefits requires patience, a challenge Smith at Yoga Off East quickly realized the first time she practiced yoga 21 years ago.
“I didn’t like it at all,” she said. “I remember constantly looking at my watch. I was used to having a pretty full schedule and to step outside of that and be quiet and still—I found [that] extremely difficult.”
But after a few months, Smith began to experience yoga’s positive mental health impacts. She encourages newcomers to give it a try and to let go of perfectionism, explaining that yoga includes different positions for all bodies that can shift from practice to practice.
For example, one can choose to relax and refocus in a recovery position like downward dog, and later activate the muscles in a more active revolved chair pose. Smith said that with any position or yoga session, “you can add, subtract, make it yours.”
As the sun rose through Slocum’s yoga session last week, she asked the class: “how can you, yourself, best show up to meet these times, to meet these circumstances?”
For local yogis, the practice is as much about self-care as it is about collective support and healing. Bethea recalled how her yoga community supported her when she couldn’t make it to class during her parents’ bout with COVID-19. They sent her homemade food and care packages and lit candles during a guided meditation while her family healed.
“There’s so much isolation right now,” Bethea said. “[Yoga helps you] remember you’re a human here having this experience.”
For Smith, that’s the beauty of any collective yoga practice—online or offline.
“Two people can show up at a class having different needs and walk back into the world together,” she said.
9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at email@example.com
At top: Yoga students strike the same poses outdoors that they would make in a studio during an outdoor class. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama
Mike Lee says he has voted with Durham’s teachers consistently during his seven years on the Durham Public Schools board. But after he and other board members voted to reopen school classrooms that have been closed since March 2020, he says, he was barraged with vitriol, bullying and personal threats from teachers.
“After my vote to open up school on March 15, the hatred, the threats to myself and the mention of my children in a few different comments showed me everything I needed to know,” Lee, the board’s vice chair, said at a school board meeting Tuesday. “Because it was all coming from staff. It was all coming from teachers.”
He said he weighed the health concerns of resuming in-person instruction and sought expert advice before casting his vote, but he was still met with accusations that he “wants our teachers to die.”
“In almost every situation, it has been, ‘With the proper protocols, schools can open,’” Lee said. “But having that opinion apparently calls for hate and threats. That’s where we are here in Durham: ‘You disagree with us, you’re dead to me.’”
In a 4-3 vote Tuesday, the DPS board reaffirmed an earlier decision to begin bringing students and teachers back into their classrooms on March 15, a year after the schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some board members wanted to postpone the reopening until April 8, to allow more time for teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
Teachers became eligible for the vaccine on Feb. 24, and the school district has been working with Durham County and Duke Health to vaccinate 1,000 school personnel per week.
Board member Matt Sears said teachers had been blindsided by the decision to reopen, and he feared that it would undermine the trust that the DPS board has established with Durham teachers. Delaying the reopening would help teachers, he said.
“For me, this is as much about trust with our staff as it is about the safety factor,” Sears said. “I do believe we can open safely relatively soon. When I look at this district and this trust issue, I see a district that has worked for more than a decade to build something special with our staff and with our teachers. We wanted to be different from the top-down districts that we see around North Carolina.”
The back-and-forth over a start date for reopening has caused anguish among both parents and teachers. Many parents were frustrated because they had already cancelled child care after the board originally decided to begin returning to in-person instruction on March 15.
“I am very disappointed to hear that the board is considering changing the return to school YET AGAIN,” Katie Rudd of Carlton Crossing Drive said in an email comment to the DPS board. “My family was so hopeful to return to school March 15 after nearly a year at home. This is not a game. Parents and children need follow-through on the existing plan, not a political stunt.”
Lee said he made his decision to reopen as both a board member and a parent. He has witnessed firsthand the toll that online learning can have on DPS students because he has a daughter in eighth grade who is “only a frame” of what she used to be.
“Do I vote against the interest of my child, who I know needs to be in school? I can’t do that,” Lee said. “As a board member, I look across this district, and I see thousands of students and families who are in the same situation that I am.”
A lack of input around kids’ welfare and mental health during conversations about reopening has left Lee concerned that teachers seem to only be prioritizing themselves, he said.
“When I met with the teachers before the emergency meeting, not one word was said about the health and wellness of our students,” Lee said. “It was about what the teachers want.”
Michelle Burton, the president of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) and the librarian at Spring Valley Elementary, said teachers are not prioritizing their health for only their benefit.
“Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions, so if teachers are not healthy then they can’t come to work, which means they are not educating kids,” Burton said in an interview Saturday. “So that means you have to keep your workforce healthy, in order to educate students in a consistent way.”
Lee said teachers have tried to shame parents away from returning their children to in-person instruction.
“Threatening families, threatening board members, attacking them for their opinion and their beliefs,” he said. “That is not organizing.”
Lee did not identify any specific teachers or provide details about threats. He did not respond to the 9th Street Journal’s requests for comment.
Burton said she was disheartened by Lee’s remarks and did not know which teachers he was referring to.
“The DAE does not condone bullying of our school board members or any elected officials,” Burton said. “But I don’t know which educators that he speaks of, because he was speaking more in a general, broad sense. I will say that educators have a right to advocate for their students, and they have a right to advocate for their working conditions, but it should be done in a respectful manner.”
Sears, Natalie Beyer and Alexandra Valladares voted to postpone reopening until April 8, but the majority decided to continue with the original March 15 plan. Board chair Bettina Umstead cast the deciding vote and said it was “the most challenging decision” she has made in her life.
Preparations for return
Elementary school students will return to class March 15. Middle and high school students will begin returning April 8.
According to February 25 results of the parent survey about choosing to return their child to in-person schooling or continue with online, 51% of parents said they would remain with virtual learning, 39% of parents said they would return their children to in-person instruction, and 10% did not respond to the survey.
DPS is providing cloth masks and face shields, disposable surgical and KN95 masks upon request, spokesman Chip Sudderth said. They are implementing physical distancing signage and other floor markings at six-foot intervals, providing frequent handwashing breaks and hand sanitizer, collaborating with the health department on contact tracing, and disinfecting high-touch areas throughout the day.
School buses will be disinfected between routes. The staff is being trained on the proper use of personal protective equipment.
At the Blue Corn Cafe, co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios keeps a close eye on her servers’ hands. When she trains them, her directions are clear:
“Don’t touch your hair. Don’t touch your eyes. Don’t touch your mouth.”
In the age of COVID-19, these things matter. From the location of her servers’ hands to the menu, the pandemic has forced Martini-Rios to make adjustments to keep her restaurant afloat, her employees safe and her customers happy.
“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” she said. “This has never happened to any business before in my lifetime.”
Martini-Rios and her husband Antonio Rios opened the restaurant on 9th Street in 1997. He is the head chef. They run the business together. Their goal is to provide customers with authentic Latin-American food like slow-roasted pork barbacoa or the house favorite, the Blue Corn quesadilla.
Everything changed a year ago. As the coronavirus began to spread, Gov. Roy Cooper prohibited indoor dining and Durham shut down. Rios was caught off guard. She had to rethink the way she’d run her restaurant.
“I knew I had to get back out,” said Martini-Rios, a lively woman who wears her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. “So, how do I make the biggest impact on my community? How can I still bring income in? And how can I try and keep some people employed.”
Almost immediately, Martini-Rios furloughed a majority of her kitchen staff, encouraging them to file for unemployment benefits rather than rely on the restaurant’s suddenly unpredictable takeout revenue.
She often had to improvise. When takeout orders started picking up, her sons pitched in. Her 15-year-old worked the line in the kitchen, and her 20-year-old began working up front waiting tables. Blue Corn also prepared meals to be delivered to workers at Durham hospitals and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, courtesy of the city as well as corporate sponsors and the restaurant itself.
“We’ve all just taken on different roles,” she said.
The challenging times have meant the cafe had to scale back its ambitious efforts to be a green business. Martini-Rios said they have stopped composting, rethought menu offerings and reverted to plasticware instead of plant-based utensils.
“It’s not a great decision,” she said. “It breaks my heart to hand somebody a plastic straw, but I have to make tough decisions.”
When the state allowed indoor dining to resume June 1, she reopened with new safety measures. She put hand sanitizer bottles throughout the dining room, eucalyptus soap in the bathrooms, and scented candles on the counters to make people feel safe and welcome. Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables along with all other condiments, now available upon request, to limit the number of surfaces customers could touch.
“We have to be particular because people are on edge,” she said. “It’s my job to look at the small things that make you feel comfortable.”
Blue Corn Cafe’s assistant manager, Mikayla Brooks, works to ensure that customers are aware of the restaurant’s sanitary efforts.
“I tell the servers to make sure people see that their stuff is being sanitized because if they see it, they know that we’re putting in the time,” she said. “And if we’re doing it when they’re here, they’ll know that we’re doing it when they’re not here too.”
In previous years, holiday dinners at the Blue Corn Cafe have featured live bands with singers strolling through the restaurant. Now, the music is recorded and comes from the overhead speaker system.
Martini-Rios, who just turned 46, was born in Florida and grew up in between Italy and New Jersey with a family that loved playing soccer and cooking together. As she talks about her childhood, her eyes light up behind her glasses.
“We’re Italian people,” she said. “Everything we do is based on what we’re eating.”
Martini-Rios went to the University of New Hampshire with pre-med plans. Shortly after graduating, she moved to North Carolina to join a women’s soccer league and started waiting tables at a local restaurant. That’s where she met Antonio, who was the head chef.
As her passion for the kitchen simmered again, her plans for medical school faded, and she realized how much she enjoyed the restaurant business. Her life-long love of cooking and Antonio’s mastery of his native Mexican cuisine made them the perfect pair to open Blue Corn Cafe. They’ve never looked back.
Still, the year of COVID-19 has interrupted some of her dreams.
Martini-Rios had begun to save money to buy herself a Porsche. Once the pandemic hit, that was put on hold.
“That Porsche went into holding all of this together. My new Porsche is Blue Corn is still open,” she said.
The demands brought on by the pandemic mean Martini-Rios rarely has free time.
Martini-Rios feels under-appreciated primarily by Durham officials.
Though she was awarded a $10,000 grant from the city on July 2, she was unable to use it in the way she had hoped. She wanted to use the money to build a back deck and a seating area along 9th Street, but the permits that she applied for were all denied by the city, leaving Blue Corn Cafe with insufficient COVID-safe outdoor dining options.
Instead, the money went towards the installation of HEPA air filters throughout the restaurant, personal protection equipment for the Blue Corn Cafe staff members, and to design a new online ordering platform.
“The money was well-spent,” Martini-Rios said. “But that grant did not keep me open. If (the city) thinks that’s the case they’re sorely mistaken.”
Martini-Rios is grateful for the support of Blue Corn’s customers. As vaccinations increase throughout Durham, she is eager to welcome more of them back into her restaurant.
“When people are inoculated, they can start to get out and help these small businesses get back on their feet. They are going to be such a vital part of our resurrection of this city.”
Photo at top: As the coronavirus shutdown disrupted her business, Blue Corn Cafe co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios adapted, trying to keep as many workers employed as she could. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal
Durham Bulls fans will have to wait an extra month for Opening Day.
The team announced Wednesday the 2021 season will be delayed by about four weeks from its original April 6 starting date.
Major League Baseball officials said the delay would improve the safety for everyone involved. It will allow more players to get vaccinated against the coronavirus before the season begins and allow more fans to feel comfortable filling the stands.
In a statement, Mike Birling, the Bulls vice president of baseball operations, broke the news to fans.
“While this isn’t the news we wanted to hear, we are in agreement the health and safety of our fans, players and staff are of utmost importance,” he said.
The Triple-A Bulls will now start their season about the same time in May as Double-A and Class A teams. While no new date has been announced, team officials said they will provide fans more information when it becomes available.
When Rev. Mark-Anthony Middleton looks into the eyes of some of his elderly Black parishioners, he sees a deep, historic hurt that leads them to question the coronavirus vaccine.
“Older folks still have the memory of Tuskegee,” Middleton, a Durham city council member, said, referencing the Tuskegee Study, a study on syphilis that withheld proper medical treatment from hundreds of misinformed infected Black men as recently as 1972.
Historical malfeasance has led elderly Black Durhamites to mistrust medical institutions, explained Middleton. To address the gaps between vaccination rates for people of color and white people, that anxiety needs to be taken seriously, the council member said.
“We have to affirm the legitimate fears and concerns that people have,” Middleton told the 9th Street Journal.
Eligible people in marginalized communities, particularly Black and Latinx people in Durham, are getting the vaccine at a much lower rate than white folks. As of March 3, 19.5% of Durham County’s white population has received the first dose of the vaccine, according to data made public by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. That’s almost double the rate for Black Durhamites: 11.3% of Black or African-American people have gotten their first shot.
For other marginalized ethnic and racial groups, the rates are even lower. Five in 100 Hispanic people in Durham have received their first vaccine, while only 6.27% of American Indian or Alaskan Native people have received the vaccine.
A lot of the inequity is a result of structural shortcomings. People of color have less access to wifi connection and transportation, making it hard to get the vaccine even for people who are eligible and want it.
But fears over the safety of the vaccine widen the gap, local health experts said during Durham County public health’s “COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community”livestream on Feb. 16.
To address the inequities, the department has offered free rides to vaccination sites for people with appointments. Local churches have chipped in too, working to gain permission from state leadersto become official vaccination sites.
Overcoming the psychological barriers to vaccination, however, requires a more empathetic, creative approach.
For Middleton, getting his first shot was a part of the effort. He was one of several local Black leaders the county health department selected to vaccinate on live television. His second shot, set for March 10, will be livestreamed too.
While he has also been verbally advocating for the safety and efficacy of the vaccine via his radio channel and pastorship, Middleton believes the fact that he can point to his arm and say “I got it” goes a long way.
“Representation matters,” he said.
From the pulpit and the recording studio, Middleton has been spotlighting Black women who have helped create COVID-19 vaccines, including Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who has been instrumental in developing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, he added.
Nurse Faye Williams, who came out of retirement at the start of the pandemic, was the first person in the Triangle to be vaccinated. Speaking at the county health department’s Facebook event, she said she hoped other Black people might’ve seen a reflection in her as she got the shot.
“I wanted them to look at me and also see themselves… I wanted to be an example, and do my part,” she said.
Durham County Health Director Rodney Jenkins, who also spoke at the event, admitted he had to take some tylenol and catch an early night on Christmas eve when he was vaccinated on Dec. 23. But the effects didn’t last long, he said.
“I came back Christmas day feeling brand new,” he said, adding that he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
The panelists touted rest, hydration and Tylenol as key ingredients to a successful vaccination experience.
Building trust in the Latinx community
In Durham’s Latinx community, financial and linguistic barriers compound technological and transport challenges in preventing people from getting the vaccine, wrote Dr. Krista Perreira, a social medicine professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Some Latinx residents may be hesitant to receive the vaccine because they don’t know that it’s free or that receipt of the vaccine will not be considered in a public charge determination, which could affect immigration status, Perreira said.
Others might be unaware that no documentation of US citizenship or immigration status is necessary to get vaccinated, added Perreira, a member of the state’s CEAL Research Team, a coalition of medical professionals focusing on COVID-19 awareness and education research among underserved communities
“For Latinx residents who may not have a computer, may not have a driver’s license, or may not read or speak English, these barriers can be especially high,” she wrote.
Other pressures may discourage Latinx people from seeking vaccination too.
“Your average Latinx person will probably not feel at ease walking into a county health department or hospital, and will feel more at ease getting vaccinated at an event that is tailored for our community,” explained Rev. Edgar Vergara, head pastor at La Semilla, a United Methodist church that serves Latinx Durhamites.
Duke Health, La Semilla and other local non-profit and religious organizations have joined together to host a series of vaccination drives. The drives take place in places familiar to many Latinx community members, such as El Centro Hispano and the Latino Community Credit Union.
Last weekend, over 500 people were vaccinated at an event at La Cooperativa Latina in Raleigh, reported Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, health equity director for Duke Hospital’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Martinez-Bianchi leads Latin-19, a network of Duke doctors and state health officials focused on fighting COVID-19 in the Latinx community. Vergara said another vaccine drive in Durham is scheduled for Thursday this week.
Having someone who speaks your language, who is a member of your own community providing resources for fighting COVID-19 makes a huge difference, he added.
“Together,” said Vergara, “we are able to reach more people and have a greater impact.”
9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At top: Durham residents exit Southern High School after receiving the COVID-19 shot at a vaccination in late January. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.
Court officials separated by glass dividers, seats taped off to create additional distance, and jurors scattered in the courtroom gallery where the public sits. In the Durham County Courthouse, this is the new normal for jury trials.
On Jan. 27, Durham County Superior Court concluded its first in-person jury trial since last March, when former state Chief Justice Cheri Beasley closed courtrooms across North Carolina in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her successor, Paul Newby, who defeated Beasley in the November election, made good on a campaign pledge in January, when he ordered the courts to reopen for in-person trials and other proceedings.
At the same time, Chief Justice Newby emphasized the continued importance of protecting the health of everyone in the courthouse. Face masks and social distancing are required, and anyone who has been exposed to the coronavirus or shows symptoms is not allowed to enter the building.
Court officials have made physical, technological and scheduling adjustments to prepare for the new in-person proceedings, while keeping COVID precautions in place.
‘Just at a slower pace’
In the past, Durham Superior Court typically held a few jury trials each month, but now there will be only about one each month.
“Every courtroom has a new capacity that is 20% of its typical capacity, to make people space out,” said Sarah Willets, a spokeswoman for District Attorney Satana Deberry. “And because of that, we have to reduce the docket for each day. Everything is happening, it’s just happening at a slower pace.”
Although jury trials will be held in person, judges will conduct some proceedings online, including juvenile cases and first appearances.
For first appearances, the judge and other court officials typically participate in person at the courthouse, while the defendant appears on video. This arrangement reduces the need to transport detainees between the Durham County Detention Facility and the courthouse, in order to cut the risk of spreading the coronavirus, Willets said.
The courthouse is open to the public, but courtroom seating is limited to allow for social distancing. Parties involved in a court proceeding get priority. Journalists also can attend trials but should contact the presiding judge in advance for approval, Willets said.
The N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts issued guidelines for selecting the order in which jury trials are held, but Deberry is ultimately responsible for setting the court calendar.
“Our priorities remain the same as they have always been, which is to focus on trying the most serious and most violent crimes,” Deberry said.
The docket is being selected by how essential each case is and whether it’s ready to go to trial, Willets said.
Deberry said she will work to clear court cases from the pandemic backlog this year.
“We are optimistic about continuing to move our District Court cases forward and adding more of those to the calendar,” she said.
Top: In-person trials have resumed at the Durham County Courthouse – but with fewer trials than before the COVID-19 pandemic, and with fewer people in the courtroom. Some proceedings will still take place online. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama