Local Politics

Durham mayor says masks are necessary if city wants to keep its economy open

"I know it's not fun to wear face masks," said Durham mayor Steve Schewel. "But we know from our own experience in Durham how effective face masks can be."

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Sydney Franklin
Heather Leah, WRAL multiplatform producers & Aaron Thomas, WRAL reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — Starting at 5 p.m. on Monday, masks are required in the city of Durham.

For most Durham residents and businesses, this isn't much of a change. Many people never took their masks off to begin with.

"I know it's not fun to wear face masks," said Durham mayor Steve Schewel. "But we know from our own experience in Durham how effective face masks can be."

Face masks, he said, are a common sense, non-economically damaging way of limiting transmission.

"If we want to keep our economy open; if we want to keep gathering, we've got to wear face masks to limit the spread," he said.

When asked if the city may begin mandating vaccines for city employees, he said, "The city manager and I have discussed that. As you know, there are more and more private and public institutions that are going to either a vaccine mandate or weekly testing, and we are considering that."

He also said many local companies are already mandating vaccines, such as DPAC.

"I would definitely encourage that, for sure," he said.

Schewel also said many local businesses are already requiring masks, before the mask mandate even went into effect.

Strolling the aisles of Bulldega grocery store, many people still opt to wear them.

"I’ve been wearing a mask since this whole thing started, and I’ve been fine," said employee Asnaldo Aldama, who is vaccinated.

Throughout the pandemic, people in Durham have taken a cautious approach in many ways.

One popular local restaurant called Rue Cler will now require proof of vaccination for customers.

Some residents say they are proud Durham is on the leading edge of taking care of one another.

Delta variant causing spike of new COVID cases in Durham

"I think it's a great idea. I 100% support it. We don't know what the virus is doing and we are back where we were," said Durham resident Natalia Harwood.

Over the past month, the percent positive rate of infections in Durham County has doubled from 2.3 percent to 4.6 percent, according to officials.

On Friday, North Carolina reported 4,506 new cases -- which is nearly 20 times higher than the number the state reported a month ago.

"This is a direction we did not want to move in," said Durham Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton. "We're not out of the woods yet. We're better off than we were before, but we're not out of the woods yet."

Middleton said city officials aren't looking to arrest or fine people for not wearing a mask. Ultimately, Middleton said it's up to businesses and neighbors to look out for each other.

North Carolina's state mask mandate expired on July 30. Gov. Roy Cooper has pressed businesses statewide to verify whether employees are vaccinated against coronavirus, and, if not, require them to wear masks and take weekly virus tests.

The push won’t be a requirement for businesses, but "a strong recommendation," Cooper said.

Matt Calabria, chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said Wake County has no "immediate plans to require that the general public wear masks indoors."

In late July, Wake County leaders announced masks would be required in county buildings, such as libraries, courthouses and EMS facilities.

In Durham, Exotique Clothing Store manager Hakim Zayid-Bey said the new mandate doesn't impact his business much.

"I never took down the sign for masks," he said. "It's always good if somebody has a cold or cough."

Schewel encouraged residents to get vaccinated to help "curb the development of variants."

"The city and county are also doubling down on our efforts to take vaccines into many of our communities," Schewel said in a press release.

Schewel said that instituting a mask mandate was to help protect residents and their vulnerable neighbors.

Harwood said she'll do what needs to be done to keep her family safe.

"Putting a mask on is the least you can do," she said.

The mandate has no expiration date, but the mayor says it'll be evaluated often.

In the meantime, he urges people to use not just masks, but also the best tool we have – the vaccine.

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