Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Steve Schewel”

Durham elections: O’Neal, Caballero split endorsements. Who’s backing who?

The Durham mayoral race is heating up, and two candidates are emerging as front-runners after winning key endorsements. 

Former judge Elaine O’Neal has been backed by the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Friends of Durham, and former Mayor Bill Bell. 

City Council member Javiera Caballero has received support from Mayor Steve Schewel, the People’s Alliance, and the Durham Association of Educators. 

Durham’s political action committees (PACs) endorsed different candidates for City Council in Ward I and Ward III. The PACs act as trusted advisors for many Durham voters. Some also raise and spend money to promote candidates through ad buys, signs, and mailers.

Since 2017, the People’s Alliance PAC has spent nearly $240,000 to support chosen political candidates, according to watchdog database Transparency USA. The Durham Committee has dished out over $165,000, and Friends of Durham has expended nearly $20,000. 

Seven candidates are running for mayor, and three City Council seats are up for election. The primary election is Oct. 5. After that, the top two vote-getters in each race will face off in the Nov. 2 general election. 

The People’s Alliance

People’s Alliance PAC coordinator Milo Pyne said many members who attended a 400-person online endorsement meeting Sept. 1 wanted the organization to support O’Neal, but the group ultimately chose Caballero in part because of “continuity.” 

“We agree with a lot of what the current council has done and the initiatives they’ve taken,” Pyne told The 9th Street Journal, pointing out that Caballero would be Durham’s first Latina mayor if elected. 

The group set continuity aside in the competitive City Council Ward I race, however, endorsing community organizer Marion T. Johnson over incumbent DeDreana Freeman. Freeman received the People’s Alliance’s endorsement during her successful 2017 City Council campaign. 

“DeDreana has a good record of service, but our members just feel like it’s time for a change, and that Marion has a unique set of experiences working with the community,” Pyne said. 

The People’s Alliance also endorsed incumbent Mark-Anthony Middleton in the Ward II race, as well as community organizer AJ Williams in the Ward III race.

While major endorsements are split so far in Ward III, the two candidates — AJ Williams and entrepreneur and former Durham Public Schools teacher Leonardo Williams — won’t be squaring off in the Oct. 5 primary. Their names will appear on the ballot for the Nov. 2 general election.  

The Durham Association of Educators

The Durham Association of Educators, a local affiliate of major state and national level teachers’ unions, similarly endorsed Caballero for mayor and Johnson in Ward I. 

The association’s endorsement press release cited Caballero’s experience working with schools and uniquely specific education plans. It also praised Johnson’s “deep understanding of how white supremacy drives the educational outcome gap” and her advocacy for collective action in schools. 

The group backed AJ Williams for Ward III, but didn’t endorse a Ward II candidate after two of the three people running didn’t respond to questionnaires and interview requests. 

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People endorsed O’Neal in part because she was born and raised in the Bull City.

“She understands the history of Durham,” committee chair Antonio Jones told The 9th Street Journal. “She understands how Durham has grown. She understands who’s been left out of that growth.” 

Jones said the committee backed Freeman in Ward I because of her track record on equity and expertise in land use. 

The committee endorsed Middleton in Ward II and Leonardo Williams in Ward III.

Friends of Durham

The Friends of Durham — a bi-partisan, Durham-focused PAC made up of community members and business people — endorsed the same slate of candidates as the Durham Committee.

O’Neal’s experience sentencing and offering guidance to people who came through her courtroom qualify her for mayor, Friends of Durham Chair Alice Sharpe told The 9th Street Journal. The group endorsed Middleton for Ward II and Leonardo Williams for Ward III. 

For the contentious Ward I race, Friends of Durham is supporting Freeman.

“We think she has shown an ability to focus in on issues, and she has grown into her council position,” Sharpe said. 

Durham for All

Durham for All, a progressive group of multiracial organizers and activists, is backing Caballero for mayor. The group cited her efforts to expand access to local government by pushing for city materials to be in Spanish in its endorsement page

In Ward I, Durham for All endorsed Johnson. 

“As the current chair of the Participatory Budgeting Steering Committee, she has organized to expand democratic, grassroots decision making in Durham,” the group wrote. 

Durham for All endorsed AJ Williams for Ward III, crediting his work organizing for community-based alternatives to policing, as well as his willingness to fight for workers’ rights and against developers that contribute to gentrification. It did not make an endorsement in Ward II. 

Former Mayor Bill Bell and Mayor Steve Schewel

Durham’s two most recent mayors split their endorsements. Bill Bell, who served as mayor from 2001 to 2017, endorsed O’Neal. 

“She knows Durham and its people but, just as importantly the people of Durham also know Elaine,” he wrote in a statement posted on O’Neal’s Facebook page. 

Schewel called Caballero brave, kind, wise, whip-smart and collegial in his Facebook endorsement. 

“Her work ethic is daunting. Her care for the people of Durham is immense. Her vision for our city is radically inclusive, and she has shown that she knows how to make that vision real,” he said. 

Schewel also endorsed incumbent Middleton in the Ward II race. 

City Council member Charlie Reece told The 9th Street Journal he endorsed Javiera Caballero. 

“She is smart, she is strong, she is courageous, and she is ready to lead as mayor on day one,” he said. 

Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson said she endorsed Caballero for mayor, Johnson in Ward I, and AJ Williams in Ward III, but is not making an endorsement in Ward II. Current Ward III City Council member Pierce Freelon endorsed AJ Williams in the Ward III race . 

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for candidates profiles, campaign coverage, and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: A sign encourages Durhamites to vote in the 2019 city election. 9th Street Journal photo by Cameron Beach. 

This story was updated to include Durham for All’s endorsements.

Schewel won’t seek reelection as mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel announced Thursday that he will not seek a third term.

Saying that he had “struggled mightily with this decision,” he told a news conference that he is ready to focus on family and some new priorities.

“I’ve been in local elected office for 14 of the last 17 years. Frankly that’s enough. . . I’m ready for something new. I’m only 70 years old so I’ve got a lot of future ahead of me.”

He said Durham is in good hands with the new city manager, Wanda Page, and he wants to leave the job to someone else so he can focus on a new granddaughter on the way. “I want to be there to help her parents and to be with her fully and completely and I’m very excited about that.”

He said he’s also “looking forward to having dinner with my wife every night.”

Schewel was first elected mayor in 2017 and won reelection in 2019. He had previously served six years on the City Council. In his campaigns for mayor, he has promised to focus on affordable housing, livable wages, equitable transit systems, police reform and LGBTQ rights.

He is probably best known for leading the city and county’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Durham became the first municipality in North Carolina to adopt a stay-at-home order and mask mandate. 

Schewel is the founder of Indy Week and has taught in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

He said he’s loved his time as mayor. “I’ve been very very lucky in my life. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed, and nothing that I’ve enjoyed as much as this.”

Schewel was asked if he had any advice for his successor. He said, “Durham is a rough and tumble political town, and you’ve really got to be able to roll with it.”

This story will be updated.

Photo at top: Steve Schewel announces he won’t seek reelection in front of City Hall. Photo by Nicole Kagan | The 9th Street Journal

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.   

Durham officials boast of giving aid to small businesses, but don’t know where the money went

Three weeks ago, city and county officials boasted in a press release that they doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and grants to dozens of small businesses. 

But which ones actually got the cash? Twenty-plus days later, not even Mayor Steve Schewel seems to know. Schewel and other city officials claim they don’t know the recipients because the selection was done by a private group.

This much is known: 115 businesses have been approved for a combined $224,000 in Durham loans and about $800,000 in grants from Duke via the Durham Small Business Recovery Fund. The fund is made up of $1 million from Duke and about $2 million from Durham public funds. 

But city officials admit they are in the dark about which businesses got the money. Raleigh-based small business lending nonprofit Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), which administered the program, didn’t give Durham a list of businesses that got the cash, according to Andre Pettigrew, director of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. 

Mayor Steve Schewel – Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Pettigrew said the program is now in the midst of another round of funding (with about $1.6 million in Durham loans and more than $200,000 in grants remaining) and the group isn’t planning on giving city and county officials a full list of businesses receiving the funds until this second and final round is complete. The only information city officials have received was aggregate demographic data of the business owners and the industries the recipients are in, Pettigrew said.

The 9th Street Journal filed a public records request for a list of the recipients, but the city referred it to the Small Business Development Fund and its president and CEO, Kevin Dick, who would not release the list. He said the group is consulting its attorneys about confidentiality issues for applicants that could arise from releasing business names because the group is a non-profit, not a government entity. 

Without a copy of a contract between Durham and the group, it’s hard to know whether a non-profit is answerable to public records laws, Raleigh-based First Amendment attorney Amanda Martin told the 9th Street Journal. Pettigrew did not respond to a request for a contract in time for publication, nearly two weeks after first being asked. Government contracts are public record, according to the North Carolina General Statutes, Chapter 143 Article 3

Schewel said that when he received the aggregated data on the grants and loans given out, he didn’t think it was crucial to know the names of the businesses at the time. He says he’s now looking forward to the list. 

“This is public money and it should be public information,” Schewel said about the loans. 

He later clarified by saying that while he didn’t believe the grants were actually public money, “it is a City Contract and should be public.”

Still, the group has been given sweeping powers to award the money. It green-lit eight of 29 applicants for Durham loans, for an average of about $28,000 per business. Among the approved businesses include two in the “personal care services” industry, one eatery, one beverage manufacturing company, one building equipment contractor, one alcoholic “drinking place,” a “jewelry/luggage/leather goods” store and an outpatient care center. 

The program also approved 107 out of 196 grant applications for a total of about $800,000. Most of the grant applications accepted were in retail, accommodation and food services, arts/entertainment/recreation, professional services and “other services.”

Durham ultimately granted the group power to disperse the grants and loans because of a lack of bandwidth in the city government to do so and because of the group’s “expertise.” 

“This is what they do, they make loans and administer programs like this for small businesses, and are especially focused on minority-owned businesses,” Schewel said. “They have the expertise and it’s not what the city does. So much of what we do in the city is contracting out to those with expertise.” 

Schewel emphasized that neither he nor the rest of the City Council had seen a list of the individual loans. Schewel and the City Council had expected to get a list with the final report in “the next month or so.”

How Steve Schewel put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system

On March 13, the nation was just beginning to realize the danger and rapid spread of the coronavirus, but “Les Misérables” was still scheduled to play that night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. That made Mayor Steve Schewel uneasy. 

In New York, Broadway was shut down. The World Health Organization had just declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And Schewel had just learned of Durham’s first COVID-19 case. 

The show couldn’t go on in Durham, he thought. 

So Schewel called DPAC’s leaders and asked about their plan. They said the 2,712-seat venue couldn’t close without a government order, which would allow it to get out of contracts without paying damages, according to Schewel. He called people in Gov. Roy Cooper’s office, but they weren’t ready to make that call.

Schewel was. 

DPAC leaders wanted to stay open for a couple more shows, Schewel said. But he felt they had to shut down.

Without consulting the City Council, Schewel declared a state of emergency that banned large gatherings effective at 5 p.m. that day, effectively turning off the lights at DPAC. 

“That was the big moment where it all became clear where my role had to change,” Schewel said last week. 

In ordinary times, Durham’s mayor has more ceremonial than actual power. The mayor runs council meetings and makes committee appointments, but in many ways, the city manager actually wields more power.

Yet Schewel’s declaration of emergency, which is allowed under the city’s Code of Ordinances, gave him powers that put muscle into Durham’s “weak mayor” system. Using that authority, plus a keen understanding of county and state politics and a mastery of the media (he is the former publisher of Indy Week), Schewel has taken a firm grip on Durham’s COVID-19 response, issuing an aggressive stay-at-home order and mandating masks before any other North Carolina locality.

“He’s been out front. He’s in the news,” said Robert Korstad, a professor in Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who has studied the history of Durham. “I live in Chapel Hill and I barely know who the mayor is. That’s not true in Durham.”

Unmasking Schewel’s face-covering, other COVID-19 policies 

Schewel’s newfound muscle can be seen in his bold actions to mandate mask-wearing in public. 

After issuing a stay-at-home order for the city March 25, Schewel worked with the county to update the order, the second time requiring Durham residents to wear masks in places such as grocery stores when it’s not possible to have a social distance. 

Working with Wendy Jacobs, chair of the County Board of Commissioners, Schewel’s mask mandate came more than two months before the governor issued a statewide order. Even Mecklenberg County, home to the state’s virus epicenter, Charlotte, waited for the state to require mask-wearing. 

In a reversal from its previous position, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended Americans wear masks in early April, but few jurisdictions required face coverings when Schewel enacted his requirement. 

Since April, the evidence has mounted in that mask mandates make a significant impact in slowing the virus’ spread. A June 1 analysis of 172 studies found face mask use could cause a major reduction in the risk of infection. Most Durhamites wear masks and socially distance properly, Schewel said. 

“I think that was a good call. Everyone’s doing it, even the vice president of the United States,” Schewel said (before Trump wore a mask in public for the first time last week). 

Schewel has filled a leadership vacuum not just locally but also at the national level, City Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton said. 

“We’re seeing the numbers now go in the wrong direction in many states around the country because of a dearth of national leadership, so many state and local leaders have been left to fend for ourselves in many cases,” Middleton said. “It has placed leaders like Steve Schewel front and center to save our own lives at the municipal level.”

To be fair, Schewel hasn’t done all of this on his own. He has worked closely with Jacobs and has often consulted the City Council and health experts, City Council Member Charlie Reece said. Earlier in the pandemic, Reece said Schewel would talk with him and other Council members every few days. Middleton said Schewel kept the Council well-informed on his decisions with regards to his emergency powers. 

Still, Schewel has been the face of the city.

“Mayor Schewel has also been especially good at making difficult decisions in a clear and direct manner,” Reece said. “He has done a great job with the impossible task of weighing the various needs and interests of all the people of our city, and of charting a course through the COVID-19 pandemic that offers our community the best chance of emerging on the other side of this unprecedented public health crisis in the best possible shape.”

How Schewel got Durham on board with his COVID mandates

Schewel, a public policy professor at Duke, has been very strategic in explaining his bold policies.

When he announced the mask mandate, he got videos from Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe and North Carolina Central University men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton that showed them wearing masks and encouraging others to do the same. He knew the coaches were popular role models in the Bull City.

“If this is going to work, voluntary compliance is what’s going to make it work,” Schewel said. “We need to explain to people why it’s important, for them to believe it, and then for them to do it.”

With his messaging on masks, Schewel struck a good balance between personal freedom and people’s responsibility to protect each other, Middleton said. 

“We didn’t turn Durham into a police state making sure people were indoors or social distancing,” Middleton said. “He appealed to our sense of community not just for ourselves but to each other and for one another. We didn’t have to do it with the force of fine or imprisonment and people just complied.”

His actions haven’t been universally popular. Schewel recently got an unsigned letter at his home written in purple marker calling him a “sanctimonious little dictator.” 

“They hurt my feelings when they said I was little!” Schewel quipped. 

Schewel’s stay-at-home order also caught the attention of Liz Wheeler, a host on the conservative One America News Network. 

“Now, the lockdown is indefinite. This happens if you give politicians power. They abuse it,” Wheeler tweeted

Schewel says he hears a lot of opinions from across the spectrum. 

“There has been lots of criticism,” Schewel said. “But also I feel a lot of support. Most people in Durham understand the importance of social distancing, face coverings and the actions we’ve taken when we needed to shut down businesses in Durham.”

Middleton is among his supporters. 

“We were fortunate to have a leader whose temperament was led by science and compassion to be making decisions during this time,” Middleton said. “I give him very high marks in what was an impossible situation, where there’s no pamphlet or textbook on how to handle these things.”

Lessons of history

The few modern mayors that have brought strength to Durham’s mayor system have shared several key traits, according to Korstad, the Duke professor who has studied the city’s history. 

One of those traits is charisma and strong networks, shared by Schewel and three others. 

The first was Emanuel Evans, a Democrat who served from 1951 to 1963. The first Jewish mayor of Durham, Evans was able to bring together Black and white labor unions and the white business elite towards desegregation, unlike many other Southern mayors, Korstad said. 

His successor, Wense Grabarek, who served from 1963 to 1971, also used his strong personality and community ties in support of the Civil Rights movement, Korstad said.

After Grabarek left office, Durham didn’t see a mayor last in office more than four years until Schewel’s predecessor, Bill Bell, took office in 2001. He brought deep ties to Durham after serving on the school board and had been Chair of the Board of County Commissioners. Bell had more of a political presence than his predecessors, Korstad said, allowing him to strength ties with Duke, build coalitions and tackle issues like poverty and inequality. 

Schewel follows in the mold of a “strong” Durham mayor in part due to his charisma and deep ties in Durham, but has also brought policy chops to the table. 

A faculty member at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and formerly a faculty member at North Carolina Central University, Schewel brings a deeper level of engagement to policy issues than even Bell, Korstad said, and could handle the city manager role easily.

The Duke alumnus also has another advantage that Bell didn’t always have: a supportive City Council and a strong ally in Jacobs, Korstad said. 

“He’s got a lot of capital. Folks know that he’s invested,” Middleton said. “Even if you disagree with him on policy, there’s no question as to his love for the city. When you’ve built up that reservoir of capital, it’s time like these you can draw on it.”

At top, photo of Steve Schewel by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

Durham lightens stay-at-home order but sticks with stricter response

A new amendment loosens Durham’s stay-at-home order, but keeps local coronavirus-related limits stricter than rules imposed by the state. 

The update, in effect at 5 p.m. today, is the fifth version of the city and county’s joint order since the coronavirus outbreak struck.

The latest changes attempt to clarify how rules apply in Durham, Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Commision, told 9th Street. “We’re trying to simplify things and make this less confusing for people,” Jacobs said. 

One simplification made to Durham’s stay-at-home order is the removal of its expiration date. The order’s previous four versions included deadlines compelling the county and city government to reinstate an order every few weeks.

With the due date gone, an emergency order will remain in place until it is rescinded or modified.  

What’s looser?

In many ways, this update eases the Durham stay-at-home order’s strictest regulations. 

In line with Gov. Roy Cooper’s May 8 executive order, Durham leaders have raised the number of people who may gather to 10. The previous versions of the order limited gatherings to five. 

Durham’s new update also follows Cooper’s lead by allowing for larger religious gatherings or protests to take place outside so long as those participating socially distance. 

The amendment ends the local classification of businesses as “essential” or “non-essential.” While some previously non-essential businesses may be able to re-open, many are still closed by the state’s order, which still shutters bars, concerts and other live performances, and more.

Friday’s update also allows potential home buyers to view occupied houses in person and permits businesses to provide employees with boxed lunches.

What’s stricter than the state limits? 

Durhamites incapable of social distancing, such as those shopping or working in a store, are still required to wear protective face masks. And business owners must continue to conduct basic health screenings at the beginning of every employee’s shift. 

Funerals in Durham will be limited to 25 people, while the state  order allows up to 50 people to attend funerals. 

The amendment also creates new regulations for child care. Child care facilities in Durham are now required to keep supervised children in consistent groups that are isolated from other children.

The state’s order preempts Durham’s in regulating retail stores. Cooper’s May 8 order allows retail stores to open with restrictions, requiring them to ensure space for social distancing and setting maximum occupancy at 50 percent. The city and county cannot raise or lower that limit. 

Why and What’s Next? 

“What this indicates is that what we’re doing works,” Jacobs said, pointing to low community spread rates in Durham, where most lethal cases of COVID-19 have been detected in sites where people are confined in close quarters, including  living sites such as the Butner Federal Correctional Complex and longterm living facilities. Such facilities accounted for 33 of Durham County’s 37 coronavirus-related deaths as of Friday morning. 

Going forward, the county and city will follow the state’s lead on reopening, Jacobs said. Durham will look to North Carolina’s guidance on best practices for testing, tracing and PPE.

Durham will also seek direction from the city and county’s joint “Recovery and Renewal” task force, which includes  local health professionals, religious leaders, business owners and other community members.

“We’re looking to the work of the task force to guide our next steps,” Jacobs said. 

The task force had its first meeting Friday morning, remotely of course. As he and Jacobs opened up the conversation, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, who sported the city’s flag as his Zoom meeting background, announced that Durham’s rate of doubling for COVID-19 cases is now greater than 50 days.  

“That’s good. We’re doing well. But we have to continue to do well,” Schewel said. 

There’s one downside to success, the mayor said. Many Durhamites don’t have immunity, he pointed out, so an outbreak could still spread quickly in Durham. 

Durhamites can go to more places and see more people when they must. But they’d be wise to voluntarily stick with the practice that has helped this community, Jacobs said.

“We still need people to stay at home whenever they can,” she said. 

At top: Duke Health continues to offer drive-up coronavirus virus testing near Duke University Hospital. Photo by Corey Pilson

The mayor’s inbox: gripes, praise and lots of angst

A lawyer grouses about people who aren’t wearing masks at Harris Teeter. A music teacher pleads for help from a small business relief program. A woman who has read — and reread — Ron Chernow’s thousand-page biography of Ulysses Grant demands that her local library be reopened.  

These emails, part of a sampling of 21 that Mayor Steve Schewel provided The 9th Street Journal from his inbox, reveal the unsettled mood of the city. They show Durham residents grappling with a pandemic that has shuttered their stores, cloistered them in their homes and left them afraid that they’ll contract the virus the next time they shop for milk or toilet paper. 

Residents worry that the virus spells doom for city businesses. There’s angst about mask enforcement, frustration over stay-at-home orders and social distancing. Some people simply long for life as it was a few months ago. Others offer the mayor a few words of thanks. 

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave” 

One recent Tuesday afternoon, Linda Goswick, 73, went to the Durham Costco for the first time in months. When she noticed a woman without a mask behind her in the checkout line, Goswick spun around and told the woman she was breaking the law.  

Later that day, she wrote an email to the mayor pleading that the city more strictly enforce its mask policy. “I am a lifelong Durham resident,” she wrote. “I want life to get back to ‘normal.’”  

Hank Hankla said his wife had a similar mask experience at a Harris Teeter, where she encountered several young men who weren’t wearing masks. Hankla and his wife, who are both immune-compromised, have since decided to buy their groceries somewhere else.  

Hankla, a lawyer, said the decision “is not only a protest, it is self-preservation.” 

Some of Schewel’s email correspondents also used dark humor to make their points that the pain and inconvenience of the shutdown was necessary for public health.    

“I’m begging you to extend (the stay-at-home order) further,” wrote John Davis, a father of a young child. “While the economy *will* recover, we haven’t – to my knowledge – figured out how to bring people back from the dead.”  

Jules Odendahl-James, a spouse and parent of “individuals at high medical risk,” put it even more bluntly.

“I cannot contribute to the economy from the grave,” she wrote.

“Imagine a ghost town” 

Many people who wrote to Schewel are worried that the shutdown will destroy the city’s small businesses.

Russell Lacy wrote that he is worried about whether his music tutoring company can survive. 

“If businesses like mine can’t get the help they need Durham’s richness will not be the same post covid-19,” he wrote, and urged the mayor to approve a small business grant.

For Crystal Williams-Brown, downtown Durham had once been a lively place where she could speak with strangers and enjoy the noise and rush of a weekday afternoon. But the pandemic has left silent streets punctuated only by the wailing of sirens.  

“Imagine a ghost town with store fronts serving as a reminder of what once was a vibrant, bustling, comforting place,” she wrote, while urging the mayor to approve funds for small businesses.  

After reading Chernow’s 1,104-page Grant biography, Morgan Feldman was ready to browse the stacks at Durham’s public library for something new. Feldman’s May 1 email indicated she’d grown frustrated not just with the shutdown of the library but with, well, everything.

“The current closures are the equivalent of a 5 mph speed limit — so it’s safe — and wearing 3 inches of bubble wrap–so it’s safe,” she wrote. “It’s all non-sense and we deserve immediate restoration of services–and the economy in general.”  

Scott Gray II described the impact of the restrictions on his personal life: his friends unemployed, his family members stranded at home, his church unable to congregate together.  

“We can’t be Bull City strong if we keep hiding.”  

Moments of peace 

“Thank you,” said the subject line in an email to Schewel from George Stanziale Jr., the president and chief business development officer at Stewart, a construction company. The message itself was brief. “I just wanted to send you a note of thanks for all you’ve done in protecting the health and safety of our city during the Covit-19 [sic] pandemic.”  

In another email, Schewel was invited to address Durham’s children.

Margaret Anderson, who directs children’s services at the Durham County Library, sent an email to the mayor: would he read a picture book over video for the kids? It would be part of a weekly series of summer videos for the children.  

The reply arrived in her inbox the next evening. Yes, of course. The video would be made, the picture book read. Life would go on. 

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.