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Posts tagged as “Steve Schewel”

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With the due date gone, an emergency order will remain in place until it is rescinded or modified.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