Mayor Steve Schewel Shares His Hopes and Plans For Reopening the City

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When Mayor Steve Schewel arrived at the plaza beside The Carolina Theatre for our cover shoot in late April, he told us it was his first time outside with a tie on since the coronavirus slammed the world. While much has changed since our conversation, the mayor’s hopes and plans to get our city back to something like normal have not.

Mayor Steve Schewel at The Carolina Theatre
Photo by Beth Mann

What does getting back to normal look like to you?  I know that [it] will be a gradual reopening. What’s going to be critical are the standards that Gov. [Roy] Cooper laid out, which [include]: We have to have enough tests; we have to be able to do enough contact tracing; and we have to see the trends going in the right direction.

And the question that everybody wants to know: When? When we see those things, then we’ll be able to begin lifting our stay-at-home order, gradually letting more and more businesses reopen. We’ve already been doing some things like that. By the time this issue comes out, I’m sure we’ll have done some more relaxing of our rules. 

What are some of your apprehensions?  One of the things we’ll see is that in some places, and hopefully not in Durham, there could be a second wave of the virus. If we see hot spots develop, if we have the testing and the tracing in place, then we can identify those hot spots, quarantine people, isolate the situation and be able to continue to successfully reopen without community spread. That’s the real goal.

Is normal going to look like what normal used to look like? I think that there’ll be certain things that are changed forever. For instance, I think that we’re going to see a lot more teleworking. The mass events were the first things that we had to shut down, and they’ll be the last things to come back.

One person told us that the impact of the coronavirus is particularly felt along predictable lines, that those who are hit hardest are the neediest among us.  One of the most important lessons is that the inequality we see in our society is accentuated by the virus. We’re seeing that race and poverty are still major determinants of what’s happening, even in a pandemic. What I worry about is that we won’t do everything we need to do to fix that. I can telework, but service workers are still out there working, and not only are they more exposed to the virus, they’re also getting it more often. There are a lot of cases that the race of the person has not been identified, but of the people whose race we know, the number of African Americans [infected] is three times the number of whites. That’s a national phenomenon, not just Durham.

What was the defining moment that you felt that you needed to make the emergency declaration on March 13? Broadway had closed in New York. I thought, well, Broadway is closed. We need to be closed. We could be exposing people. Durham had its first case two days before, so I called Bob Klaus over at DPAC, and one of the things that DPAC said was that if they were going to close, they needed an order from the government. I was in touch with the governor’s office, [and] they were not going to do it at that point. So I discussed it with Bob and declared the emergency and closed DPAC. DPAC was very cooperative. They were unhappy that it happened at 5 in the afternoon when they had an 8 o’clock show, but they understood the emergency nature of this, and they were very supportive of it. 

And then came [your] stay-at-home order not long after, near the end of March.  The Mecklenburg [County] public health director issued a stay-at-home order. Our public health department wasn’t quite prepared to do it, and I realized it needed to happen. And so I did it. [Ed. note: As of press time, Durham’s updated stay-at-home order is in effect until further notice. For further updates, visit

It must’ve been a tough decision.  It’s difficult to make these decisions because they affect so many lives and so many livelihoods. Making all these big decisions on an emergency basis under the pressure of time and thinking, “We’ve got to save lives,” but knowing it’s going to have a really negative effect on lots of people’s livelihoods, it’s very hard. 

When you’re elected mayor, you don’t think, “Oh yeah, I’m going to have to deal with a pandemic.” I’ve made a lot of decisions. Are they all correct? I know they’re not. You have to make a lot of decisions fast, knowing that you’re doing your best. I’m taking the best public health advice I can get, but at the same time, it’s humbling. I’ll tell you this, I have felt tremendous support. I feel like the community has really rallied to do the right thing. There are people who are isolated, you know; there’s all the mental health issues that come with this; there’s, of course, the job loss and the economic fear. And that’s so real. 

You mention job loss. In particular, restaurants are a dynamic part of Durham. What can the city do to help our restaurants come back? I have some ideas about it. Can we shut down some streets and some sidewalks and help our restaurants have outdoor seating? There’s going to be a lot of creative ideas we’re going to need like that. 

And next steps?  I’m going to be announcing a group that is going to be made up of various business sectors, made up of folks from our public health community and the medical community, representative of the nonprofit community and the churches. They’re going to work on a recovery plan and a renewal plan, and it’s going to be sector by sector. They will be coming out with their ideas as they go along. Before they are finished working, we will be gradually coming back.

[Ed. note: On May 12, Mayor Schewel and County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs appointed 15 members to the Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force who will advise in the revision of emergency declarations and make recommendations to the community on how to safely, gradually and successfully reopen. Co-chaired by Duke Regional Hospital president Katie Galbraith and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC vice president and corporate controller Maticia Sims, the task force will have a 100-day period of service and hold public meetings.]

How have you personally been hunkering down?  This is the first time I have been outside with a tie on. I’ve gone to the grocery store. I’ve done some takeout at a few of my favorite restaurants. I ride my bike, I run, or I walk every day, but otherwise I’m at home working.

Is your family with you?  One of my boys, Abe, and his wife are in town. They live in New York, and they’ve been here for about a month. They are not living with us, but they are living near us. So they’re here, which is an unintended blessing, and it’s wonderful. We sit and have dinner with them 10 feet away in our backyard. We had our Passover Seder over Zoom, and we had 17 families in seven states. One of the best things about it was there were people [attending] that sometimes, for various health reasons, can’t come to the Seder. I think that’s another thing that will happen next year. Even if we’re together for the Seder, the folks who can’t always be there will be Zooming in.

Aside from the health issue, what are some of your concerns as Durham phases into recovery? I have several concerns, and they are conflicting. One is that we will open up too fast, that we won’t have the testing and tracing in place, and we will have a surge of the illness. We’ve done a great job avoiding a surge that will overwhelm our hospitals and our health care people. 

If you’ve ever seen a graph of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, you’ll see it has three peaks. The second peak was the greatest – killed many, many people. We have to, as a nation and as a city, make sure that we’re not reopening up too early. [Another] concern is that we really have to help people by bringing the economy back, and we have to do that safely, and it’s going to be very hard to figure out how to do that. And we need to do both things. That’s going to have to be done gradually. It’s going to have to be done with the advice of public health officials, and it’s going to have to be done with enough testing and tracing in place that we can – when an outbreak does occur – quickly isolate it, quarantine people who have the virus and prevent it from becoming a bigger phenomenon.  

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Amanda MacLaren

Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Arizona, she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for eight years. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Guasaca.
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