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Spike in virus cases prompts Durham officials to delay restaurant, salon openings

While Gov. Roy Cooper announced the next phase of a statewide plan for a gradual return to public life, Durham is taking a more cautious approach.

Posted Updated

Sarah Krueger
, WRAL Durham reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — While Gov. Roy Cooper announced the next phase of a statewide plan for a gradual return to public life, Durham is taking a more cautious approach.

Mayor Steve Schewel said Friday that an accelerating rate of coronavirus infections in Durham prompted local officials to prevent restaurants, salons and some other businesses in Durham and Durham County from opening before June 1.

Cooper said Wednesday that he would lift his statewide stay-at-home order at 5 p.m. Friday, allowing such businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity and requiring them to adhere to strict cleaning protocols and implement social distancing guidelines for workers and customers.

"For the first time, really, Durham has seen in the last week a higher rate of cases than the state of North Carolina as a whole. For a couple weeks, we were having about 12 cases a day. We have now more than doubled that in the last week," Schewel said, noting that the county has triple the number of infections per capita than neighboring Wake County.

"We’re certainly not a hotspot. I don’t want to get people scared," he said. "But we do need to be more cautious than the state as a whole as we reopen because of this. We’re not where we would like to be."

Much of the spike is in the Latino community, Schewel said, so officials need a better outreach and education effort about social distancing and sanitization.

Durham has said its stay-at-home order for both the city and the county would remain in effect indefinitely, and the governor's executive order allows for stricter local restrictions.

"I’ve certainly heard from businesses that are unhappy, and I get it. I get it," he said. "I’ve also heard from most businesses, though, that they want to be cautious."

Marcie Kowalski at the Unapologetic Beauty Studio was lining up appointments for this weekend, but now all of that work must be undone.

"To be setting up everything and be told that you actually don’t get it open and it’s maybe June 1 but we don’t know yet? Like, it hits the soul really hard," Kowalski said.

Durham officials are working to set up supply lines so restaurants, salons and other businesses can provide masks, gloves and other protective gear to workers and customers as needed, Schewel said.

"We hear a lot from them that they’re not ready in that regard, and we want to help," he said.

Officials also are creating a voluntary self-certification system for businesses – the Durham Gold Standard – and expect to have it in place next week.

"We think that one of the things that’s going to give customers and clients confidence as they come back is, if they see posted on the front of the business, the fact that the business is taking seriously safety and sanitation best practices for their kind of business, Schewel said.

Durham's stay-at-home order continues to require people to cover their faces in public whenever social distancing is impossible. It also still limits any gathering to 10 or fewer people; the new state order raises the limit for outdoor gatherings to 25 people.

Also different from the state order is that, when Durham restaurants do reopen, they will be limited to six people at a table instead of 10. Like other North Carolina restaurants, they can operate at only half capacity and must adhere to strict cleaning protocols and social distancing guidelines.

One change from Durham's previous orders is that real estate agents can now accompany prospective buyers into both vacant and occupied homes for showings. Open houses are still prohibited, however, and any showings must come at least an hour apart.

Although the local order allows swimming pools to reopen on June 1, city officials said Thursday that they won't open any public pools this summer because of logistical and equity issues.

The new Durham County stay-at-home order follows the statewide order in terms of childcare facilities and summer camps, as well as exempting worship services from limits on mass gatherings. But a group of Durham ministers said Thursday that they will continue to offer either online or outdoor services to ensure people can follow social distancing guidelines.
WRAL anchor/reporter Adam Owens contributed to this story.