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Durham County officials juggle coronavirus, cyberattack response

Durham County has been hit with a one-two punch: the COVID-19 pandemic and a significant ransomware cyberattack. In a special virtual meeting on Friday, the Durham Board of Commissioners discussed the county’s progress on tackling both issues. 

County officials are working to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected 102 Durham County residents so far. Public health officials are tracing any individuals who have been in contact with those who have tested positive for the coronavirus.     

Officials are also taking precautions themselves. They relocated from the Broad street office to Durham’s Health and Human Services building, which allows enough office space for them to maintain social distancing. Leslie O’Connor, Emergency Management Division Chief, said COVID-19 screenings are also taking place in the building.

Commissioners pushed for increased caution when it comes to social distancing. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statewide stay-at-home order on Friday, and the city of Durham’s order from Mayor Steve Schewel went into effect Thursday. Gatherings of more than 10 people are banned. The commission approved an emergency measure that allows chair Wendy Jacobs to enforce the orders. 

During the meeting, Commissioner Heidi Carter said she wants a stricter ruling on social gatherings. “We’re not hammering this bloody virus hard enough if there’s a provision in our order to allow 10 people to be together still,” she said. 

While managing the county’s COVID-19 response, county officials are also working to manage the repercussions of the ransomware cyberattack on city and county governments on March 6. It happened just days after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in North Carolina. 

“This has been an all-hands-on-deck exercise, working 24-hour shifts and weekends to restore resources here in the county,” said Greg Marrow, the county’s chief information officer.

The attack left the county with a hefty clean-up job. The county’s email system was back up and running as of Friday. Marrow said the IT team has successfully reinstalled software on all county computers and laptops and scanned over 2 million documents across 300 servers and 800 databases. However, there’s still a significant amount of work to be done: The IT team estimates the number of documents that need to be scanned will reach into the terabytes. 

Marrow warned residents to be extremely cautious when clicking on links or opening websites about COVID-19 to prevent future attacks from happening. 

“Hackers are having a field day around the country taking advantage of the panic going on right now, so we all need to be mindful of that,” he said.

The county will hold a press conference on March 28 at 2:00 p.m. in the county chambers, where commissioners will  discuss Cooper’s executive order to stay at home.

Top photo: Screenshot of the virtual Board of Commissioners meeting on Friday, March 27. 

Governor yields to hospitals’ call for stay-at-home order

Amidst mounting pressure from the health care industry, Gov. Roy Cooper declared a statewide stay-at-home order Friday to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The measure goes live Monday at 5 p.m. 

“We have to act now in the safest, smartest way while we have the chance to save lives. It is truly a matter of life and death,” Cooper said Friday afternoon.

North Carolina is at least the 24th state to have declared such an order as of Friday afternoon. The state order will take precedence over local orders if they conflict and if local orders are less restrictive, Cooper said. 

“This order may lead to even more hardship and heartache,” Cooper said, acknowledging the huge numbers of people who have lost employment from efforts to stop the coronavirus. “We will not forget people who have lost their livelihoods during this crisis.”

The order is similar to others nationwide in that it requires people to stay at home unless they leave for approved reasons. Those include trips for essential supplies, for health care, essential work and outdoor exercise. 

Grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants offering takeout, drive-through and delivery only can remain open in the statewide order. It bans gatherings of more than 10 people and calls for social distancing. 

The move comes after hospital lobbying group N.C. Health Care Association wrote to Cooper Monday urging such a policy to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which may prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed by a large influx of COVID-19 cases.

The virus is spreading in North Carolina, although due to limited testing, its true reach here is unknown.

On Monday, the state reported 297 confirmed cases of the virus but by Friday had confirmed nearly 800, Cooper said. The Centers for Disease Control has deemed North Carolina has reached “widespread transmission,” he added. 

Some cities and counties, including Durham and Mecklenburg County, beat Cooper to the punch by implementing their own stay-at-home orders this week. Durham and Mecklenburg counties have among the highest number of confirmed cases in the state.  

Cooper, whose tone was measured during his press conference, said that he hopes people will voluntarily follow the order and remember “the good part of our lives as North Carolinians will return.”

He is asking law enforcement to encourage people to abide by the order, he said. If people “continually and flagrantly” violate the order, the governor stressed, authorities will prosecute. 

“This is a serious order and we want people to follow it,” Cooper said. 

In addition to a $2 trillion federal stimulus package passed by by Congress on  Friday, Cooper has made moves to soften the economic fallout from efforts to control the virus.

The governor expressed concern about how long it might take for federal relief for small businesses and said he wished more money was distributed to states and municipalities.

On the state level, Cooper made unemployment benefits easier to get in a March 17 executive order, a move which has triggered more than 200,000 unemployment claims statewide, most citing the pandemic, he said.

“This order may lead to even more hardship and heartache,” Cooper acknowledged. “ It might mean you’re isolated or you lost your job. That’s difficult, so thank you for doing the right thing.”
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You probably won’t get arrested for violating the order 

Maryland isn’t messing around with its coronavirus response. 

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

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

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

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

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

Not a ‘shelter-in-place’ order

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

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

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

No explicit curfew

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

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

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

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

Durham’s order is hyper-detailed

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

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

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

Weddings, funerals allowed 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus concerns halt evictions in Durham

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead has stopped serving eviction notices and padlocking rental properties in Durham County to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Evictions stopped in Durham days after North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley issued a series of emergency orders pausing nonessential court proceedings and giving sheriffs across the state the ability to postpone some enforcement actions.

A Monday evening statement from Birkhead confirmed that his office has decided to halt eviction service.

“I am suspending the service of these judgments until further notice,” Birkhead said. “Although Chief Justice Beasley’s order does not specifically address this process, it has been interpreted that under that order a suspension would be allowable.”

Beasley’s issued the first order halting nonessential court proceedings in North Carolina on March 13. In a memo two days later, she clarified that her first order included eviction proceedings.

That effectively shut off the flow of new writs of possession — the court orders to evict tenants that have lost to landlords in court. But while new writs stopped coming more than a week ago, dozens already existed. The sheriff’s office estimates around 180 evictions occur in Durham every week.

As of last Wednesday, the sheriff’s office said it was still legally required to serve those pending eviction writs. But on Thursday, Beasley issued another order that ended up freezing those writs, too. It pushed back the due dates for many filings and “other acts” of the North Carolina courts, including evictions. Under this order, actions due on March 16 or later would now be on time if done by April 17.

Normally, tenants who lose in court have 10 days to file for an appeal. Under Beasley’s order, motions to appeal an eviction ruling are still timely if filed by April 17. That means all eviction cases with original final appeal dates on or after March 16 are postponed.

Last Friday, the office of the Clerk of Durham County Superior Court said it had stopped issuing writs for such cases and recalled all of the writs it had sent throughout that week involving those cases.

Several of the state’s largest counties had determined by Saturday that Beasley’s order also gave them discretion to halt eviction service. Peter Gilbert, a Legal Aid lawyer who focuses on eviction defense, said those included Mecklenburg, Wake, Guilford, Forsyth and Cumberland.

On Thursday evening, the Durham sheriff’s office indicated it was working to interpret Beasley’s order hours after it came out that day. The office continued to consult with legal teams and the judiciary on Friday.

By the time the sheriff decided to stop serving writs, there may have been none left to serve. Gilbert, who works in the Eviction Diversion program run by Legal Aid and Duke Law’s Civil Justice Clinic, said the pending writs were likely all recalled by the clerk.

“It’s essentially moot,” Gilbert said Monday, before the sheriff issued his statement. “It’s not his authority, because the clerk has started recalling any writ from March 3 or after. That should be and almost certainly is all of the pending writs of possession.”

Clerk of Durham County Superior Court Archie Smith could not be reached Monday evening to clarify whether all pending writs had been recalled. But on Thursday, Smith told The 9th Street Journal he intended to follow the spirit of Beasley’s order.

“The lens from which I will interpret things where I have the option to interpret things will be through public safety, with a focus on limiting social contact for the purpose of limiting the spread of contagion,” Smith said.

Birkhead’s Monday statement said that “no one has been evicted into a homeless situation as a result of recent orders.”

But some evictions may have already occurred amid confusion. According to Gilbert, at least one padlocking occurred on Thursday before Beasley’s order, but after sheriffs in other counties had stopped serving evictions.

“Anyone being evicted during this time is at a great risk, not only to themselves, but as a vector carrying disease,” said Gilbert. “The governor is urging us to stay home. It’s impossible to stay home if you don’t have one.”

Durhamites struggling to pay rent will be able to stay in their homes for several weeks, but eviction still looms over them.

“These cases are delayed. They are not dismissed,” Gilbert said, adding that courts are still receiving new eviction filings.

“When this ends, there is going to be a tsunami of evictions,” Gilbert said. “That is going to be aggravated by the fact that so many people in Durham are cost burdened. They are already spending over half their income on rent, and with so many workers losing hours or being unable to work at all, I suspect that whenever this ends, we are going to have a real eviction crisis.”

At top: A sign posted by Durham County sheriffs deputies before a landlord changes the lock. Photo by Niharika Vattikonda

Durham public schools to start student lunch delivery

Starting Monday, yellow school buses will once again stream to all corners of Durham County. This time they won’t be carrying children, they’ll be delivering needed food. 

Durham Public Schools is launching a meal delivery and pick-up program that will provide lunch and a snack to schoolchildren every weekday until at least March 30.

Meals will be made available at “Grab and Go” sites at 17 schools and 50 “mobile sites,” mostly apartment complexes and recreation centers. 

In an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, all North Carolina public schools are closed until at least March 30.

The unplanned closures leave gaps in more than lessons and test-taking. Approximately two-thirds of Durham Public School (DPS) students qualify for free and reduced school lunches, compared to the state average of 57% in 2018 .

Durham school leaders want to continue the meal programming until schools are reopened, but whether that happens depends on if they get funding, said Board of Education member Natalie Beyer. If the federal government does not come through, the public schools will have to look for local funding to continue, she said.

Beyer said school board members hope to have answers on funding by Thursday. 

Durham is not alone in mobilizing food delivery while public schools are closed. Many surrounding counties have similar plans, according to a News & Observer report.

Organizers identified low-income neighborhoods and housing complexes and designed the plan to serve “our most in-need and vulnerable students,” Chip Sudderth, the school system’s chief communications officer explained in an email.

The locations of displaced McDougald Terrace families, who left their public housing apartments for hotels across the city in January, were also taken into account when strategizing the site locations, Beyer said.

This past weekend, the Durham Public School Foundation and other nonprofits delivered meals to families that needed them immediately. DPS needed 34 volunteers and they got over 600, according to a tweet from Durham County Public Schools.

The foundation shared photographs of volunteers wiping down steering wheels and car interiors.

In the midst of this coronavirus outbreak, social distancing will be a mandatory ingredient at meal pick ups. Sudderth said the district is advising people visiting the mobile sites to not gather in groups larger than 10.

“Crowds and lines will not help this situation, and DPS staff will wait to serve until students are organized,” he wrote.

Along with the food, students will receive school work packets. The contents aren’t intended to teach new material and do not require access to the internet or technology. 

This meals program is not completely unprecedented. The school district has summer meal programs, Beyer said. The USDA-funded summer meals program ensures students still receive breakfast, lunch, and snacks even when school is not in session. 

The impromptu program won’t fill all the gaps that opened after schools closed. DPS has universal free breakfast which students will not receive this week, said Beyer. Surrounding counties such as Wake and Johnston counties are including breakfast in their programs, however.

At top: A screenshot of a portion of the sites where Durham Public Schools are making food available for students. The entire list is here.

The board: cancellations, uncertainty, and hope on a bulletin board on 9th Street

The building is empty and the sun-bleached paint is peeling, but the wall of Ninth Street’s now-defunct clothing store, Native Threads, is still alive with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored flyers. 

The makeshift bulletin board, an old-school way to learn about events in the area, stands as a snapshot of what life had in store before the COVID-19 shutdown. Concerts, comedy shows, and meditation classes have been canceled as chaos and social distance overtake the Triangle. 

We tracked down the performers and organizers behind some of the flyers. 

Jess

The flyer for The Bright Side Conference is, appropriately enough, quite bubbly. It promotes “a gathering high-fiving women for where they’re at now and helping them get to where they want to go.” But, with high-fiving recently deemed unsafe, the event won’t be held as planned in Raleigh.

Still, the Bright Side Conference “was always about optimism,” said organizer Jess Ekstrom, and she has adapted. With unpredictability being just about the only predictable thing in our lives, Ekstrom and her team are still leaning into their hopeful message: “We need (optimism) now more than ever.” 

The conference will go on, but not exactly as planned. The organizers have shifted gears to make the whole thing virtual — which, Ekstrom said, came with an unforeseen slew of benefits. She invoked a phrase that a friend has been using: “With new problems come new solutions.” 

The conference, originally open only to women, is now open to anyone. The virtual platform also allows self-paced access to talks and workshops that never expire on topics such as yoga, meditation, and art. The team has been able to invite more speakers now that travel is not a consideration, and their message is reaching more people and possibly having “a greater ripple effect.”

Ekstrom said the whole episode is a reminder to be flexible and learn. “Sometimes we think because something was our original plan, it was right,” Ekstrom said. In having to reevaluate her plans, she has found that there are “things in store for us that we don’t even know about.” 

This has created a shift in the conference’s central theme as well; it will now focus on “the future and how we can remain optimistic.” 

Ekstrom graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies in 2013. Since then, she has started two businesses, made a name for herself as a public speaker, and recently published a book titled, appropriately enough, “Chasing the Bright Side.” The book emphasizes using optimism as a tool to create the life you want to live. She got her start in college, when she founded a company called Headbands of Hope that donated a headband to a child with cancer for every headband sold. 

“I had no idea what I was doing but had this belief that I could make the future better,” she said.

She has taken a similar approach for the Bright Side Conference. Since participants won’t be getting swag bags, the conference is donating them to nurses and hospital staffers. 

Yet even Ekstrom sometimes finds it tough to see the bright side. “It’s been one moment I’m like, ‘this is great,’ and then the next moment I get sucked into a dark hole on Twitter,” she admitted. She described it all as “an emotional roller coaster” but maintained a sense of hope. Like so many, Ekstrom is finding solace in the community that will come of this strange and unknown time. 

“It’s affecting everyone,” she noted, “and that’s the good and the bad part. But there’s so much unity in that.”

Rebecca

The flyer for “The Rebecca Show” features two women striking thoughtful poses. Rebecca Fox and Rebecca Jackson-Artis are pondering one of life’s most pressing questions, the title of their performance at the Pure Life Theatre in Raleigh: “What if I’m The Becky?” Their website describes Becky as “a catch-all name for a white woman who doesn’t get it … is that redundant?” 

The show, now postponed, was going to cover “sexism, racism, violence, the brutality of motherhood, exploitation in sports, regrets in old age, and the dynamics of changing friendships.” 

Fox said the two “are proud to have made a decisive, timely choice” in pushing the performance back. The Manbites Dog Theater Fund, which was sponsoring the show, “has given all the recipients an extension,” according to Fox. 

Fox, a bilingual speech language pathologist, teacher, performer and mother, said she is now focused on taking care of her children, who are out of school. She is not yet sure when performing will be back on her mind. 

“I’m anticipating that we will all be inside for a long time,” Fox said, adding, “I’m hopeful that after my family and I have established some semblance of a new routine, I’ll be able to carve out some time and energy for work and a creative life again.”

It’s a time of uncertainty.

“As with so many things,” she said, “it’s TBD.” 

John

“Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma will introduce practices of Nine Breaths of Purification and Tsa Lung,” promises one flyer, advertising a weekend of Tibetan Yogas of Body and Breath. 

It says the Nine Breaths of Purification “is a simple yet powerful practice for clearing our relationships to attachment, aversion and ignorance by regulating our breath and bringing awareness to the movement of the winds in the channels.”  Tsa Lung teaches exercises that cleanse the chakras. The flyer notes that these are “movements easily learned and benefits quickly felt.”

Unfortunately, the weekend of meditative practice has been canceled, leaving the chakras of many Durhamites clogged in the weeks to come. Lama Geshe Denma, who was born in Nepal and trained in India, was coming to Durham from a nearby retreat in Virginia. Now that he will no longer be passing through, it would be a challenge to reschedule. 

But yogi and event sponsor John Gordon Moore has found peace with the decision. “Although I was certainly disappointed that the workshop had to be canceled,” he said, “it also provides an opportunity to practice contentment, and to gracefully accept whatever life offers.” 

Moore, a Durham local since 1999, has been teaching yoga since 1987, and in his many years with the practice he has come to learn that it is “not only about flexibility of body but also of mind.” He mentioned that this time of reassessment and finding grace in the midst of disorder reminds him of an old Sanskrit word, “Santosa.” The word embodies a profound sense of comfortability or contentment. 

Already, the quietness that life has taken on has prompted contemplation in Moore. “Surprised isn’t the right word,” he mused, “I’m impressed by the ways the community is coming together.” 

Photos by Carmela Guaglianone. 

Protecting jail inmates from coronavirus

Sheriff Clarence Birkhead announced Mar. 16 that due to concerns about COVID-19, all in-person and video visitation to the Durham County Detention Center is suspended. Advocates from the ACLU, Duke Law, and the Safe and Human Jails Project, among others, are pushing for more changes to protect inmates’ health. 

Recent arrivals to the jail will undergo an additional screening for symptoms of COVID-19, and attorneys will only be able to communicate with clients through video kiosks. All first appearance hearings will be conducted by video conference.

These changes will affect all 369 inmates currently housed at the jail.

AnnMarie Breen, public information officer at the sheriff’s office, said the medical staff at the detention facility spoke to detainees about COVID-19, including how the virus is spread and proper hand washing techniques. Detainees are responsible for cleaning their cells, she said, and the jail has an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other cleaning products. 

“We feel like we’re doing the most that we can to make sure that those CDC guidelines are being complied with,” Breen said.

District Attorney Satana Deberry released a statement Mar. 20 emphasizing that her office has taken steps to reduce the detained population. In February last year, the DA’s office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends releasing non-violent offenders without monetary conditions.

“As a result of these policies and efforts by judicial officials, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys, the population of the Durham County Detention Facility is already well below capacity,” she wrote.

Last week, her staff began stepping up reviews of the jail population and working to safely release individuals, particularly those who do not pose a public safety risk, are over 60 years old, or have pre-existing health conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Attorney Daniel Meier said attorneys are still allowed unlimited visitation with their clients in jail, and he’s able to meet with his clients 24/7. Instead of meeting in the attorney booths, where attorneys can slide paperwork to their clients, they are now communicating through secure video booths. 

The jail has 12 attorney booths but only two video booths. Now that video booths are in high demand for attorneys to meet with their clients, there can be delays, Meier said.  

Breen said that remote visitation might even be slightly more popular recently. Usually, she said, because of the costs involved with setting up remote visitation, there was a small fee associated with the service. Right now, the service is free, so many people are taking advantage of remote visitation.

In a letter to the Chairman and President of North Carolina’s Sheriff’s Association, advocates recommended that sheriff’s departments across the state implement additional precautions due to the anticipated spread of COVID-19. Advocates have suggested several strategies to reduce the county jail populations and maintain humane conditions of confinement.

To reduce county jail populations, the signatories of the letter have suggested releasing all individuals over 65 years old, those who have medical conditions that the CDC considers vulnerabilities in this outbreak, pregnant individuals, and others, unless there would be a serious safety risk to the community. They suggested stopping arrests for low-level offenses and issuing citations instead of arrests. 

Within the jails, signatories have suggested eliminating medical co-pays, ensuring adequate access to cleaning supplies, and avoiding the use of lockdowns or solitary confinement as a way to contain a potential COVID-19 outbreak. 

The signatories have emphasized maintaining confidential access to counsel, which Durham has implemented through the video kiosks available to attorneys and bonding agents, according to Sheriff Birkhead’s announcement.

“I’m not worried because, fortunately, we’ve got a very proactive defense bar. The DA’s office has stepped up and is working with us — so are the judges, the sheriff’s department,” Meier said. “I don’t know how other counties are doing it, but Durham is working together.”

Schewel says Durham, like other areas, is considering shelter-in-place restrictions

In California, the governor has issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order to slow the coronavirus pandemic, calling on residents to stay in their houses and apartments unless they work in a critical job such as government, schools, childcare or construction. 

It’s also been dubbed a “shelter-in-place” order, a term used by some local governments that have adopted restrictive policies about when people can leave their homes.  

Is Durham likely to pursue those kinds of restrictions?

At a news conference Friday afternoon, a 9th Street Journal editor asked Mayor Steve Schewel if he was considering a shelter-in-place policy for the city. With 39 confirmed positive tests, Durham County has the second-most coronavirus cases in the state. 

“I don’t know anyone who is grappling with this issue in a serious way and is in a leadership position in a city or a county that is not actively thinking about shelter in place,” Schewel said. But he said a Durham policy alone would have little teeth. People drive into the city from other areas every day. 

Schewel was asked if he thinks it is necessary now, on a local level. 

After pausing for a few seconds, Schewel took a deep breath. 

“I’m still evaluating that. I’m listening to the public health authorities and I’m evaluating it. If we are not there now, we will be getting there,” he said. “We have the first transmissions in the state that are community-spread. We are heading in that direction.”

Schewel said he talked with Gov. Roy Cooper about more restrictions as recently as Friday morning, though the governor said Friday afternoon that the state was not ready to issue such an order. Wake County is mulling such a policy, though. 

Schewel struck a tone of caution Friday. 

“Societies that have most effectively fought coronavirus have acted early,” he said.

What exactly does shelter in place mean?

In emergency management, “shelter in place” has typically been used for seeking protection from hazards such as hurricanes or a shooter. A Yale University definition says: “Shelter in place means finding a safe location indoors and staying there until you are given an ‘all clear’ or told to evacuate.”

With the virus outbreak, the term has been used to describe policies closing nonessential businesses and asking people to stay at home except for certain purposes, like getting food or medicine, Schewel told the 9th Street Journal. 

This is not yet happening in Durham—the city is asking people to socially distance, he said. 

The city has also shut down businesses such as theaters and gyms – “venues and businesses in which we think that kind of social distancing will not occur,” Schewel said. 

In announcing the “stay-at-home” order Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said more than half of California’s residents could get the coronavirus. His order called on residents to stay home while closing gyms, bars, restaurants (for dining in) and non-essential entertainment venues. Newsom said he didn’t think law enforcement would be needed to coerce people into staying in. 

However, grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, gas stations and other essential services were allowed to stay open. Residents can still go for walks and bike rides if they follow social distancing. 

The response so far

Durham City and County have each declared states of emergency. 

The city’s declaration runs through March 28, and has prohibited gatherings of 100 or more people in city-owned or partially city-owned buildings like Durham Performing Arts Center. A later amendment to the city’s declaration closed fitness clubs, gyms and theaters on Friday. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Cooper banned all restaurants in the state from serving dine-in meals and shuttered all bars. Schewel has said enforcement of this provision hasn’t been needed for the most part.

A reporter asked Schewel about businesses that have been impacted by the explosion in Durham last spring and how new restrictions would or could impact them. 

“The longer we wait, the greater our chances are that the virus will have wide community spread and the longer the disruption of the business will be,” Schewel said. 

In other news on Friday:

  • Schewel announced the Durham Farmer’s Market scheduled for Saturday would be closed to avoid the large crowd. 
  • The city announced all city buildings would be closed effective Monday at 8 a.m. That includes City Hall, police headquarters and every fire station. Parks and recreation facilities have been closed since March 13. 
  • The city also announced GoDurham will end all routes at 9:30 p.m., beginning Monday, as to allow more time for disinfecting the buses. 
  • Garbage and recycling collection will continue as scheduled, except for bulky cardboard pickups, which have been suspended indefinitely. 

In photo above, Mayor Steve Schewel speaks at a news conference about the city’s response to the coronavirus. | Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

COVID-19 Q&A: Mayor asks residents to keep distance but help each other

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel talked with The 9th Street Journal on Thursday afternoon. This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

What is the most important challenge that Coronavirus is bringing to city government?

Well, I think it’s the same challenge that it’s bringing to our whole society, which is the critical need for social distancing so that we can slow the spread of the virus. That’s got to be the number one job of everything that the government and our community bends its mind to — we have to do that. 

What city services are down, modified and stable?

Most of the major functions of the city are definitely continuing. Fire, police, emergency response, water, sewer, garbage pickup and recycling — those kinds of things.  Some of our services that have to continue and are crucial do present more of a challenge — policing and fire, for example, emergency response, all those things have to continue. We have to try to modify people’s behaviors in order to get the work done as safely as possible. 

A lot of other services can be done online. For example, inspections obviously have to be done in person, but a lot of the prep for that can be done online. So we’ve moved a lot of our work in the city government online so that people can work from home. My assistant is working from home. All the city clerk staff who usually are right outside of my office, they’re working from home.

There are definitely services within the city that we are not performing right now because of the need to socially distance. We canceled our city council meeting that was supposed to be this past Monday. We cancelled our work session on Thursday. Our audit committee is not meeting because unless it’s essential, we’re not going to be gathering in groups.

We are working to find out what the legal basis is for having virtual council meetings. In April we are due to meet again and we would like to virtually if we can. But of course that presents issues of public access. It’s a public meeting, so anybody has the right to come. In terms of the planning, zoning, that area, I know that we’re slowed down. There are also other areas I’m sure, but I just don’t know what they are. 

Do you think that Durham is prepared to respond to this pandemic?

From the city government perspective, we’ll be able to do the things that we do. I do have emergency powers in this situation, and, because this is a true emergency, I had to issue an emergency declaration to close our city facilities including the DPAC, the Carolina Theater, and others for public health purposes. But the things that we do aren’t the most important aspects of this.

The county has the public health authority. They run the Department of Public Health and the public health issues are the most important issues. We have to work closely with the county. Another example is the public schools. That’s also not under the city’s purview. That’s the Board of Education. They made the right decision to close the schools, and then the governor followed up with the statewide school closing. Now there’s a huge effort to feed the schoolchildren. That’s the school system and the Durham Public Schools Foundation.

Duke Health has a huge role here and is very well prepared for this. They’re going to be very ready. So all that is just to say, yeah, we have a role. But there are a lot of other organizations outside of the single player role.

Has last week’s cyber attack affected the city’s response in any way?

Yes. It’s made it harder for people to telecommute because it knocked email out. The vast majority of people in the city have been able to get their email back up, but at the beginning it was a problem. We were exceptionally well backed up. All of our servers were restored within a few days, but the computer virus infected more than 1000 computers, so re-imaging those is taking time. So those things have definitely hindered our ability to have folks successfully telecommute to be able to do their work, but that’s all being worked through. We’re a long way down the road.

What is the city doing to communicate with the many city residents who speak Spanish?

I did a statement yesterday on video and now there’ll be a written version of it. We’re translating that into Spanish. For people without computers, I don’t think that we’re taking any special efforts to try to reach them because everyone is so slammed dealing with the basics of the coronavirus. I think that if you’re without a computer you’re probably missing a lot of the public health messages. 

There is a lot of outreach to homeless people. I’m on a phone call tonight with all the homeless service providers, including healthcare providers. One big concern: Suppose there are homeless people who have the virus and don’t need to be hospitalized but need to be quarantined. There needs to be housing for them. There’s a lot of thinking about how that might occur.

What are some of the big steps you’re taking or thinking about taking to attack this coronavirus and protect the city?

I already shut down the various city facilities, including our recreation centers. We were about to do the restaurant thing. I lobbied the governor really hard to do that, and I’m very glad that the governor made that decision. We would have made that decision locally. I issued an amendment to the emergency declaration that closes fitness clubs, gyms and theaters. 

There’s all the messaging, which is super important — getting it out to people that they need to social distance, and having that messaging be convincing. A lot of people, especially in the younger generation, aren’t doing it. We’re letting people know that that’s not responsible. Younger people can get sick and do get sick, and they do die from the virus. And also it’s not responsible because they can carry it and, even if they’re asymptomatic, pass it on to people in higher risk groups. Young people need to socially distance. It’s critically important. 

Where do you think volunteer help and community effort is most needed?

Feeding the schoolchildren. If I was to say the number one thing people could do right now would be get in touch with the Durham Public Schools Foundation and say that you want to help feed our school children. There’ll be other volunteer efforts needed as well: feeding our elderly, providing childcare for emergency health care workers. 

What do you want to tell Durhamites? 

Listen to my video. The main thing I want to say is that we can make a difference here. We have got to act now, before we look back and regret that we didn’t act soon enough and find out that this virus has ravaged our community. The earlier we act, the more power we have to stop the spread of the virus. Each of us have to act so all of us are safe. 

Mayor Schewel will have a press conference today at 2:30 p.m. in front of City Hall regarding COVID-19 State of Emergency Declaration Amendment. Check for updates on the City of Durham’s response to COVID-19 here

At top: A screen grab from the Mayor Steve Schewel’s video address to Durham residents.