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How the Blue Corn Cafe survived the year of COVID-19

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.”

“I’m working harder today than I have since I’ve opened this restaurant,” says co-owner Danielle Martini-Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

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.”

Salt and pepper shakers were removed from tables and there’s now plenty of hand sanitizer. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

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. 

Blue Corn Cafe co-owner and head chef Antonio Rios. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

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.

“That doesn’t exist right now. We’re understaffed, overworked, underpaid … underappreciated sometimes, too.”

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.”

The Blue Corn Cafe. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

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 Opening Day delayed until May

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.

Local leaders build COVID vaccine trust in Black and Latinx communities

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 leaders to become official vaccination sites.

Overcoming the psychological barriers to vaccination, however, requires a more empathetic, creative approach. 

A Durham public health worker hands residents masks as they enter the Durham County Human Services COVID-19 vaccination site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

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 Rod Jenkins speaks during a live panel discussion titled ‘COVID-19 Vaccines in the Black Community,’ hosted by the Durham County Department of Public Health. The Feb. 16 livestream also featured Population Health Director Marissa Mortiboy, nurse Faye Williams, and Duke University Assistant Professor Dr. Julius Wilder.  

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.

People walk into the vaccination site at Duke University’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

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 olivia.olsher@duke.edu. 

At top: Durham residents exit Southern High School after receiving the COVID-19 shot at a vaccination in late January. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama.

Durham courtrooms made COVID-safe

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.

Court reporter Denise St. Clair works during a break in Durham Superior Court, where the judge and other court officials are isolated behind glass panels. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

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.” 

Some courtroom seats are blocked off, to promote social distancing. Staff photo by Sho Hatakeyama

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. 

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

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

Durham Bulls hope state officials will allow 2,500 fans on Opening Day

Updated: Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he was easing the state’s COVID-19 restrictions, which should let the Bulls have 2,500 to 3,000 fans per game. “We are very happy with the governor’s decision,” said Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations. “We were currently at just over 700, so to be able to jump to 2,500 – 3,000 will really be beneficial to our business.”

By Nicole Kagan and Claire Kraemer

When the Durham Bulls open their season April 6, team officials hope that the state will allow them to fill their ballpark to 25% of its 10,000-seat capacity. But for now, COVID-19 rules permit just 7%.

In an interview with The 9th Street Journal and in a virtual town hall with fans, team officials said Tuesday they are taking special measures to assure fans’ safety for the Bulls’ first season since minor league baseball was shut down by the pandemic last year. And they hope state rules will soon permit more fans.

Mike Birling, the team’s vice president of baseball operations, said an announcement about greater capacity could come as early as Wednesday.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said earlier this week that the stadium’s capacity would be determined by state guidelines in April, but that, “I think by that time we will be doing a lot better.”

He said he was hopeful that “they’ll be able to open with a decent amount of fans there.”

Chip Allen, the Bulls assistant general manager for sales, said the team has taken many precautions to keep fans safe. The ballpark has also gone cashless and ticket sales are now completely digital. The ticket takers that used to greet fans at the stadium’s entrances will be replaced by free-standing kiosks that allow fans to scan their tickets themselves.

The Bulls will play only five other teams to minimize travel and there will not be any playoffs or an all-star game.

Merchandise and concession stands will still be open for fans looking to buy a baseball cap or a footlong hot dog, but there will be more mobile ordering so fans don’t have to stand in line.

Even with these changes, the Bulls acknowledge that some fans may be uncomfortable returning to a stadium, particularly early in the season. So they’ve offered season ticket holders flexibility, allowing them to bypass the first couple months of the season in exchange for credits later on. 

“Our long-term goal is to have our fans for life,” Allen said. “So we’ve got to do right by them now.”

The team is well-known for entertainment and fan contests on the field between innings. But given that fans are no longer allowed on the field, entertainment will be pre-recorded and fan contests will take place around the concourse. 

Still, with games on the schedule and players on the field, team officials are eager for Bulls fans to return to the stadium.

“We can’t wait to see you guys,” Birling told fans in the town hall. “We can’t wait to get that first pitch.”

Photo above, Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull is ready for the new season (Team photo)

Parents describe a wrenching year of ‘Zoom fatigue’ as schools prepare to reopen

Mary Barzee’s seven-year-old son, Leo, sits down at their kitchen table to begin another day of online school, a routine he has been stuck in all school year. 

As his teacher starts the lesson, she cannot see that behind the camera her student is crafting paper airplanes and does not have his book open to the correct page. Barzee sits at the kitchen table with Leo, trying to balance working from home and helping her son with online school.  

“This has already gone on for a year, and I am in a pretty desperate situation with my first-grader,” Barzee said in an interview. “He has major Zoom fatigue. He’s regularly crying, and his self-esteem has taken a major hit. It’s a disaster. His teachers are doing the best they can, but they cannot see what’s happening on the other end of the screen.”   

After almost a full year of online instruction, the Durham Public Schools board voted 5-2 Thursday to begin bringing students back into the schools on March 15 — reversing a previous decision to keep classrooms closed for the rest of the school year. The vote came in response to Senate Bill 37, which the General Assembly passed this week. If Governor Roy Cooper signs the bill, all North Carolina school districts will be required to offer in-person instruction for all students. 

Classroom chairs are stacked on desks at Jordan High School, awaiting the return of students. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Teachers want vaccines

Barzee said she will return Leo to in-person learning at George Watts Elementary School as soon as it is available, because he has struggled with virtual learning. At the same time, she acknowledges the concerns of educators who say they should receive coronavirus vaccines before they are asked to return to school.  

“I want to advocate for vaccines for teachers and other school staff who will be going back to teach in person,” Barzee said. “I have hopes that Durham schools can provide safe in-person learning environments for students and teachers, too.”

Reopening schools could save other families from desperate situations. Kristin Cunningham said she had to quit her full-time job and find part-time work that she could do at home, for less money, just so she could oversee the online instruction of three children who are George Watts Elementary students.

“I felt kind of abandoned by the public school system because so many people rely on that system being in place to care for their children and to be able to work,” Cunningham said in an interview. “I work in health care, and I didn’t have the option of working from home.” 

Parents sacrifice careers

Across the country, parents have had to make career sacrifices so that they can help their children with virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This burden most often has fallen on working mothers, who are nearly three times more likely than fathers to stay home and take care of the kids, according to research from the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve.

“We’re just barely hanging on,” Barzee said. “Everything to do with my job is dictated by [my son’s] class schedule.”

Many parents are concerned that their young children are forced to spend too much time in front of their computers, when they should be socializing and playing outside. 

“Virtual instruction is not working for my first grader,” Maria Cattani of Clarendon Street said in an email to the DPS board. “Despite heroic attempts by her and the teacher, every day we end up in tears and tantrums. My kid has heart-wrenching meltdowns about [how] she wants to go back to school. She wants to play, she wants to do puzzles, Legos, build forts.” 

Barzee has opted out of virtual art, music, and P.E. classes for her first-grader and his preschool brother. She homeschools those subjects herself, so her boys won’t have to spend their entire day online. 

“Before [the pandemic], we were extremely cautious about screen time,” she said. “We didn’t have a TV in our house. It’s just been really difficult to watch my kids’ attention span diminish.” 

In an email to the DPS board, Pablo Ariel of Clarendon Street described how his six-year-old daughter had a meltdown over her virtual homework. She could not stop sobbing as she repeated over and over, “I just want to go to school. I just want to go to school.” 

“Kids’ voices have been absent from the discussions about reopening,” Ariel said. “Virtual learning for young kids is a failure, and they are suffering.”

For many children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), online instruction is simply not an option. IEPs are special education services tailored to serve children with disabilities or other challenges that might impede their success in school. 

“My son is autistic and will not do Zoom school. So he essentially is receiving no education at all this year from the school system, which I believe to be illegal and a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act,” the parent of a four-year-old boy, who asked to be anonymous to protect the child’s privacy, said in an interview. “I feel disappointed at the lack of creativity or flexibility from the school system. It felt like the needs of neuro-divergent kids were coming in last.”

DPS enrollment has declined

The decision to begin reopening schools could make a crucial difference for enrollment numbers in Durham Public Schools, which lost 2,850 students at the beginning  of the school year. More parents have told DPS officials that they might find other options for their children, such as charter or private schools, unless classroom instruction is restored.

“Virtual school is not working for our child and our family,” Meghan Brown of Inverness Drive said in an email to the DPS board. “We are being forced to change school districts unless Durham changes their mind. Not trying to pressure, but it’s just our reality.”

The DPS website has details of the plan to restore in-person instruction for families that want it. 

K-5 students will attend in-person class every weekday except for “Wellness Wednesday,” which will be remote. Students in grades 6-12 will be divided into three rotating groups so that each group has in-person instruction for two days a week and virtual school for three days. All K-12 students with IEPs have the option for in-person instruction up to four days per week. 

Betting Umstead, the DPS board chair, spoke at Thursday’s Zoom meeting.

The reopening plan includes provisions for personal protective equipment, social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Bettina Umstead, the DPS board chair, said in a news release that students who opt to continue learning from home will help increase the safety for teachers returning to the classrooms.

“If you can and if you are able, it’s important that you keep your students at home so that we can have proper social distancing and support our staff in this plan,” Umstead said. “I want everyone to know that we care deeply, each and every one of us, about every single one of our educators, every single one of our students, and this is not a decision that we make lightly.”

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

At top:  Ever since they shifted to online instruction last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Durham’s empty schools have longed for the return of teachers and students. File photo by Henry Haggart

Changing things up to keep business alive during a pandemic

After entering Black Wall Street Barber Shop, it’s hard to know where to focus. Colorful art from around Durham covers the walls. A boisterous radio interview with Anthony Anderson booms over speakers. Then, there’s the soft, constant buzz of Akili Hester’s razor as he cuts and sculpts clients’ hair. 

In short: it’s local and it’s lively. Hester, the shop’s owner, worked hard in the four years he’s owned Black Wall Street Barber Shop to make it that way. Yet Hester has had to work even harder to stay in business through the coronavirus epidemic.

Trying to stay afloat was pretty difficult when you’re dealing with half of what you’re used to making and you still have to cover all of the same bills,” said Hester, whose shop is on Fayetteville Street near East Lakeville Avenue. 

The pandemic took things from nearly everyone. But it’s hit some Americans harder than others. 

A survey by a national business mentor group found that Black-owned small business owners were 90.7% more likely than white small business owners to have a direct relationship with someone infected by COVID-19. And despite seeking financial assistance at much higher rates, Black business owners were significantly less likely to receive both government and private funding, the SCORE survey, published in October, found. 

Akili Hester at work in his vibrant barbershop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

To make it through, Hester has applied his own creativity and some advice from the Durham Business and Professional Chain. “The Chain” has worked with and aided the Triangle Black business owners since 1937.

Hester has unique ties to The Chain. His father, Larry Hester, was once the organization’s president. And his stepmother, Denise Hester, chairs its communications committee. They founded M & M Real Estate Development and Consulting together.

The nonprofit ended in-person meetings once COVID-19 became a threat. But it continued with its outreach, mostly with a newsletter and a heavy social media presence. Through these media tactics, said Denise Hester, The Chain has been able to share grant opportunities and general business advice.

“On our Facebook page, we try to publish uplifting articles about what others are doing and service the information about what has been successful for other businesses,” she said. 

The Chain has also counseled local business owners to stay connected with customers even as the pandemic pushed them apart. 

Get in touch with your customer base,” was part of the guidance, Denise Hester said. “Business owners don’t always have time to mine accurate information of their customers, but maybe now with this time, they can really look at their analytics and see where their money is coming from.” 

Hester works within sight of a bull in a Durham city flag mask that Brandon Hampton painted inside the shop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

The Chain helped Akili Hester become aware of his customer’s needs, he said, and think critically about ways to improve his business.

For the barber, who shut down his business in early March after his wife caught COVID, some adjustments were obvious. That included mandatory mask wearing and limiting how many people can be in the shop at once.

By the time he reopened in June, he had lost about 50 percent of his clientele because many  customers were too scared to leave their houses, he said. Pre-pandemic, Hester would probably be cutting “10 heads,” a day, he said. These days he usually cuts a fraction of those. 

Seeing he needed secondary income, Hester started a side T-shirt and clothing shop called Bull City Merch, which exists online and in his shop. He designs the shirts himself, often adding text that promotes community unity.

“I started to notice that I would cut someone’s hair, and that would be about $20, but then they would buy a few T-shirts and that would be like $40. Even now, as business is starting to pick back up, selling the shirts has really helped me keep the lights on,” Hester said.

He markets the shirts to all of his customers, including those who can’t yet return to his shop. 

“I had the idea for the “Bull City Strong” T-shirts even before COVID, but I think they work even more now,” Hester said.

Akili Hester, flanked by Durham musicians, throws up his fist in a video boosting Bull City Merch.

He  filmed a short music video showing them off. After years doing video work for the North Carolina rap music scene, Hester hired music artists to help with the video, including members of The Materials, a Durham-based soul group. 

Their words echo Hester’s message of unity. He and the others proudly throw up their fists and tell their audience to “buy black.”

The T-shirt designs have been received well, consistently selling 10 to 15 shirts a week,  said Hester,  who gives barbershop clients discounts.

Sometimes Hester’s creativity sparks ideas in others. Local muralist Brandon Hampton was so inspired by T-shirt designs that he painted one inside the barbershop. It’s a bull wearing a mask that looks like the Durham city flag – a physical manifestation of the “Bull City Covid Era” messaging that runs throughout Hester’s merchandise.

Looking forward, things seem to be looking up for Hester. He’s hoping to get started on more video projects for his YouTube channel, including a project to interview Black small business owners in Durham. 

He’s also working on opening a new barbershop near where Black Wall Street Barber Shop stands. He intends to sell Bull City merch there too.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you got to play a part in your own rescue,” Hester said.

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

At top: Akili Hester outside Black Wall Street Barber Shop. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

As state leaders push to reopen schools, some Durham school leaders push back

Durham teachers should have a chance to receive COVID-19 vaccines before they are asked to return to school, two school board members said this week after Gov. Roy Cooper urged school officials to reopen classrooms for in-person instruction. 

“At this time we’re still on the trajectory of continuing to stay remote,” Mike Lee, vice chair of the Durham Public Schools board, said Wednesday. “It’s important that if we are asking our teachers to go back to teach our students, teachers should be put at the forefront of the vaccinations, so that they can have some assurance that they are safe.”

In a letter Tuesday to local school board members and superintendents across the state, Cooper said recent research shows that schools can reopen safely when they follow COVID-19 safety protocols. A Jan. 26  CDC report cited a study of 17 rural K-12 schools in Wisconsin, which found that only seven out of 191 coronavirus cases were the result of in-school transmission. 

“In-person learning is fundamental to children’s development and well-being,” Cooper wrote. “Our public schools provide academic guidance, social and emotional supports, reliable meals, and opportunities for physical activity. Further, there are growing harms to children who are relying solely on remote instruction, including negative impacts on academic and mental health and food insecurity.” 

Cooper, a Democrat, was not alone in pushing school boards to get students back into their classrooms. Catherine Truitt, the Republican state superintendent of public instruction, co-signed Cooper’s letter and joined him to make the case at a press conference. 

While Cooper and Truitt said they “strongly recommend” that local school boards provide in-person instruction, the Republican-led Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that would require schools to do so.  If the legislation receives final approval next week, it will go to the House for consideration. 

A bottle of disinfectant but no students were present in a Jordan High School hallway this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Infection rate too high

DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said administrators are studying the Senate legislation and Cooper’s recommendation, and have not decided whether to recommend changes. Lee said the DPS board will consider Cooper’s letter at its Feb. 11 meeting. 

Most North Carolina school systems are providing in-classroom instruction now for at least some students, or have announced plans to do so by mid-March. The DPS board voted Jan. 7 to continue with remote learning for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year.  Board members said then that they didn’t want to consider reopening schools until Durham County’s coronavirus infection rate — the percent of public test results that come back positive — falls below 4% for a two-week period. The county’s infection rate stands this week at 7.9%.

Board member Natalie Beyer said Tuesday that all teachers and staff should have the option to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. DPS employs nearly 6,000 people. School board members have been told that school staff members are not likely to receive COVID-19 vaccinations until April, she said. 

“Student and staff safety has to be paramount as we work on the incredibly complex logistics of reopening,” Beyer said. “I know that [online instruction] is not equivalent to an in-person experience. But with the vaccine so close, it seems even more important for our state leaders to work with the federal government to rapidly accelerate the vaccinations of teachers and other frontline workers.” 

Animal science teacher Breanna Saunders comes to her empty classroom at Jordan High School to teach her veterinary assistance students online. “If Durham allowed us to move up in priority and to be able to get the vaccine before kids came back [to school], I would be for it,” Saunders says.
Teachers’ safety concerns

Happi Adams, an English teacher at Jordan High School, said teachers would rather teach in person but have insisted on online learning because of safety concerns. 

“Instead of legislating when we go back to school, I would like for our legislators to push measures that address our COVID safety concerns — provide funding to improve ventilation in buildings, purchase appropriate amounts of P.P.E., and speed up the distribution of vaccines for teachers. This is what will enable us to teach in-person safely,” Adams said. 

Although teaching virtually is not ideal compared to in-person instruction, she said, it’s better than the inconsistency of switching back and forth between in-person, hybrid and virtual learning. 

“Consistency and predictability are key to quality instruction,” Adams said. “By making the decision to stay [online] through June, we have avoided the chaotic back-and-forth that many districts have experienced and eased the anxiety that comes from uncertainty. Teachers and schools have been able to focus on improving virtual learning.” 

Cooper said local school leaders should follow safety protocols outlined in the state’s Strong Schools Public Health Toolkit, which describes measures including adequate community testing, PPE, disinfecting, masking and more. 

DPS board member Matt Sears said state leaders should let Durham and other local school boards decide whether in-classroom instruction is safe.

“I was glad to hear Gov. Cooper talk about local control and local decision-making,” Sears said. “If the legislation that comes forward does not include that, my hope is that he would veto that legislation.”

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

At top: Animal science teacher Breanna Saunders leading class in her empty classroom this week at Jordan High School. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Low supplies delay coronavirus vaccinations

By Rebecca Schneid
and Dryden Quigley

Durham County and Duke University have paused offering new coronavirus vaccination appointments due to a limited supply. 

County officials intend to begin scheduling new appointments by the end of February, but are unsure of an exact date. An unspecified number of people will be required to delay existing  appointments. But officials say that will be a small number and delays won’t exceed five days.

People with dates on the books, including spots for second doses, will get vaccinated, health officials stressed.

“Durham County has a baseline allocation of 600 first doses for the next three weeks, and we are uncertain when our allocation will increase. It is best to halt scheduling until we are confident we will be able to fulfill additional appointments,” Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins said in a press release.

People lucky enough to have appointments did get shots this week. That was evident Friday, as people complied with health precautions to gain entry to the county Department of Public Health vaccination site on East Main Street.

Visitors were screened in the parking lot by answering a few questions and then were handed tickets from staff members that allowed them to enter the building.

A woman collects a ticket needed to enter a vaccination site at the Durham County Department of Public Health this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

After getting dose number one, Durham resident Juan Santiago said he was “very relieved.” He also landed an appointment for a return dose two, in three weeks, he said.

Before climbing into an Uber, Santiago stressed he does not plan to stop wearing a mask or stop staying mostly at home.

This vaccine shortage is not unique to Durham. All over the state, distribution sites have exhausted their resources, state officials say. On Tuesday, state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen released a letter explaining that federal allotment of vaccines to North Carolina dropped from 260,000 to 120,000 this past week. 

The federal government is incentivizing states to use all of allotted vaccines, Cohen said, noting that states with large unused vaccination supplies could receive reduced quantities. In response, vaccination providers worked especially hard this past week to clear the states’ backlog of vaccines, she said. 

As of Tuesday, North Carolina had distributed 95 percent of its first doses. The recent success pushed North Carolina from 40th to 22nd place on a Center for Disease Control and Prevention ranking on how many first doses states administer.

Durham early this week announced plans to open a mass vaccination site capable of vaccinating 17,000 people
weekly. The timeline for the opening of the site was still being determined, officials said.

Health care workers, longterm-care residents and staff, and people aged 65 and older are eligible to receive coronavirus vaccines in North Carolina. Durham County has distributed about 36,000 vaccines so far, according to the NCDHHS.

A sign points the way to vaccines at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability. Due to the pandemic, Durham public schools have not met in person since March 2020. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

North Carolina has had over 746,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases with Durham County making up 19,000 of those cases. Durham County has also had 173 deaths attributed to the virus. 

There may be a shortage of vaccines in Durham, but there is certainly no shortage of want. Despite demand not meeting supply, eligible Durham residents have been contacting helpline or online services to try to get appointments.

People were also crowdsourcing on social media forums like Reddit and other digital platforms to find out where they could get doses as quickly as possible.  Some traveled if needed to get their shots, including to Granville and Cumberland counties.

9th Street Journal reporter Olivia Olsher contributed to this report

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

At top: One woman wheels another into Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center at Duke University, one of three sites in Durham dispensing coronavirus vaccines this week. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama 

Mandy Cohen Day … without Mandy Cohen

Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, was “Secretary Mandy Cohen Day” in Durham. But Dr. Cohen, the North Carolina secretary of health and human services, didn’t come to Durham, nor could she stand before the City Council as members honored her with a key to the city. 

It marked the first time someone has received a key to the city without actually being in the city. Quite appropriately, Cohen was following her own COVID-19 safety directives to avoid indoor gatherings (the City Council meets by Zoom these days). That directive and many others from the state have surely saved countless lives, which has prompted considerable praise for Cohen’s handling of the pandemic as North Carolina’s top health official.

During the meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel honored Cohen for her “exceptional service to our city and its people.” 

“We are only able to present the key to you virtually tonight,” Schewel said. “We do have a real key to give, but we’re following your COVID-safe instructions.”

Schewel said the key will be kept at City Hall along with the proclamation in “beautiful physical form.”  She’ll receive both once city officials determine it is safe to return to City Hall for mundane duties such as mailing packages.

After the meeting, Schewel said he was sorry she could not attend. “I would love to have shaken her hand. I would love for her to have actually heard a crowd of people rising and applauding.”

Cohen, who took part in the meeting while sitting with her family by the stone fireplace of their Raleigh home, said she felt both lucky and saddened to have received the honor without leaving her front door. 

“It’s amazing to be in your own home and still be connected to everyone,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “But, we miss being in person, as everyone does. There’s an intangible aspect there … we try to replace it, but it’s never really the same.”

Cohen said she was grateful she could share the moment with her husband and young daughters.

“It’s been a hard year not just on me, but on all of our families, so it was nice to be able to include them in the moment and for them to hear how my work and our team’s work has been impacting the state.” 

Cohen’s key recognizes her response to COVID-19, but she has other public health responsibilities. Since her appointment by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, Cohen has worked to combat substance abuse, raise mental health awareness and close the health care coverage gap. She has earned Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership in Public Health Practice Award and been named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare.

“She is leading probably the most difficult, complex department that we have in state government,” Cooper said during the meeting. “And I’m grateful for her everyday.”

Cohen said she is eager to visit the city.

“We spend, as a family, a fair amount of time playing in Durham,” she said. “And we look forward to being able to do that again.”

In photo above: The City Council honored Mandy Cohen, lower left, during its Zoom meeting on Jan. 19.