Local News

Durham uses 'stern' letters from city lawyer to gain compliance with pandemic rules

Posted December 16, 2020 5:25 p.m. EST
Updated December 16, 2020 7:59 p.m. EST

— Violations of restrictions Gov. Roy Cooper has put in place during the pandemic to limit the spread of coronavirus can result in a misdemeanor citation.

But that's not the case in Durham, where a "stern" letter or two from Assistant City Attorney Anna Davis is usually enough to bring businesses and individuals into compliance.

Nine months into the pandemic, Durham has yet to cite anyone for violating executive orders on wearing masks, the size of gatherings, the nightly curfew or operating a business that's supposed to be closed. Only one citation has been issued in Durham County, compared with about two dozen in Wake County and a dozen in Orange County.

Even smaller counties like Person and Warren have seen more citations for violations than Durham County has.

"People, for the most part, have been very responsive," Davis said. "It’s wonderful to feel like the concerns of the city were taken seriously."

Mayor Steve Schewel and city officials put education at the forefront of enforcement efforts early on, she said, so complaints about violations have been funneled to her rather than to Durham police.

"The police department simply doesn’t have the resources to go out looking for violations," she said.

About 200 complaints about violations have come in since April through the Durham One Call hotline for service requests, as well as through city departments, officials and even the city's Facebook page.

Davis calls and writes a letter to the business in question, and police follow up by delivering a notice of violation.

"I probably haven’t made a lot of friends in terms of being the person to make this contact and manage the enforcement," she said.

Still, the letters seem to be doing the job.

"Typically, we have found that has been pretty effective. We have seen changes made, or people verbally say, 'I didn’t know. We’re happy to make that change,'" she said. "I think people here really do care about the community and for the most part we see people coming into compliance."

Shooters II, a bar and dance club on West Morgan Street, for example, came into compliance after initial complaints about it being open in the summer when bars statewide were supposed to be closed and subsequent complaints that it had exceeding the maximum allowed capacity.

"It’s wonderful when people will, you know, follow the rules without us having to take that step," Davis said of having police issue citations. "But we are prepared to take that step if we need to."

The extra duty is important to Davis not only because it's enforcing the rules but also because her husband is a health care worker who treats COVID-19 patients.

"To me, to have businesses complying, is really a justice issue. ... Business owners need to comply to protect the people who are serving our community," she said. "Knowing that my husband and his colleagues are seeing these big increases of patients, yes, I feel, if it’s within my power at all to help get people on board, then I’m willing to do that."

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