The Coronavirus: a city and its tourists’ worst nightmare

By Brittany McGee

Out on the town: Durham edition

Jeff Baynham, the interim vice chancellor of advancement services at North Carolina State University, got in his Nissan Altima, driving just over 20 miles to Durham to meet his partner, a public-school teacher named Sanders Bankwith, for their routine outing together.

It was date night, so they attended a Broadway show at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), which was a regular part of their lives.

It was a tradition.

Given their busy schedules, Baynham and Bankwith made it a priority to never miss their date nights at DPAC.

Tonight, they were going to see February’s show about that teenage girl. Mean Girls, was it? To them, it didn’t matter.

They found a great parking spot in the Cocoran Street Parking Deck, close to a number of restaurants and DPAC, so there would be no need to drive and find parking again.

The couple decided to go eat tapas from Mateo. They chatted about their days and used their dinner as an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, leaving the stress from daily life behind for a few hours.

They had plenty of time after dinner and decided to get drinks. Bankwith had a cocktail, and Baynham had a Bourbon, because he is an old-fashioned guy, at the Aloft hotel, located right next to DPAC.

When it was time, they entered the theater, encouraged to put the distractions on hold and immerse themselves in a different world for a night.

“It’s hard for us to do that as a society now because you have the Twitters, and the Facebooks, and the texts and all that,” Baynham said.

Baynham cherishes these nights out when he and his partner can explore downtown Durham. Their favorite thing to do is try new restaurants and bars. Baynham moved to North Carolina in 2016, but four years later, he still feels a bit like a tourist.

Baynham and Bankwith are just regular people, out on the town, enjoying their night and supporting various businesses in downtown Durham. Alone, their story does not mean much, but together with the thousands of other DPAC patrons, this couple’s impact on the city’s economy is significant.

A pizza joint’s perspective

“Is it a show night?” Kendall Holleman, a 21-year-old server at Mellow Mushroom, asked a co-worker as she walked behind the long, brown counter, taking in the pizza joint’s fragrance.

Holleman has worked for Mellow Mushroom for about two years. She knows the drill. Whether it’s a game night for the Durham Bulls, or a show night at DPAC, servers in downtown Durham keep up with the events. Those are the money-making nights.

In February, most nights saw the restaurant packed. She didn’t work crazy long hours in those days, but the tips were good.

“You know on show nights, that’s when the big parties would come in,” Holleman said.

She and her fellow servers’ incomes fluctuate regularly with DPAC’s schedule; the more popular the show, the better their night.

The arrival of COVID-19

But then, everything changed, and businesses began shutting down as social distancing restrictions were put in place because if the Coronavirus.

There was no sign of another busy show night in sight.

Banyham and Bankwith had plans to go see Les Misérables with two of their friends on March 14. For a while, there was no information coming from DPAC about whether their show would go on.

Their friends bailed almost immediately, advising the couple to return their own tickets and get their money back. Cancelled show or not, this virus was too dangerous to take the risk.

The couple understood this, but it was a deeply instilled tradition; they could not make the decision about what to do. Finally, DPAC took the decision out of their hands by postponing the show, later cancelling it altogether.

Similarly, Holleman was faced with uncertainty; however, she was in a much more precarious position.

The restaurant was curbside only. No servers were necessary.

She stayed at home, in bed. At first, there was hope that this is how things would be for a few weeks, but then everything would go back to normal. But it didn’t.

“I didn’t know if I still had a job,” Holleman said.

For three months, she stayed inside, in her bed, never leaving. She drank, probably too much.

It could be called quarantine, but she knew the stress and anxiety made it more likely to be depression.

She began looking for other work.

Maybe a grocery store?

She avoided spending money as much as she could because her income was gone.

A city’s struggle with the virus

Margaret Pentrack, director of content for Discover Durham, said the pandemic has had a significant effect on visitation in the city. Both the number of visitors and their economic impact is estimated to be 45% less than what the initial 2020 expectations were.

DPAC’s economic impact alone added over $127 million to Durham’s economy in their 2018- 2019 season. It is impossible to say now, considering the effects of COVID-19.

“It is a doorway for introducing people to Durham,” said Susan Amey, CEO of Discover Durham. “People come here for the theaters and realize how much there is to see and do.”

Amey and Pentrack estimate that half of the 12,835 visitor-related jobs created by the tourism industry in Durham have been lost.

Three months went by before Holleman felt like she could breathe again.

She was one of the servers who would be brought back for real shifts. Luckily, she had already been a long-term employee of Mellow Mushroom’s.

Some of her co-workers, before COVID-19, had worked short, part-time shifts. Mellow Mushroom did not let anyone go, but those part-time shifts were shortened to practically nothing. The servers who were still able to get shifts found themselves working much longer hours than they did before but with a smaller crew.

This was, in part, due to another big change: shared tips.

Holleman said there were a number of employees who quit. The traffic was low, and shared tips were unappealing. There was also uncertainty surrounding whether they could be let go in the future. This worried Holleman as well.

She does not have a backup plan, and the restaurant industry is all she can do right now.

As for Baynham and Bankwith’s date nights?

They’re living together in Raleigh now, working remotely and making long drives around rural North Carolina to count as date nights.

They have not been to downtown Durham since February.

Edited by Sarah DuBose

Nigerian-Americans Find Community at Independence Day Celebration

By Ruth Samuel

At 808 Hodges Street in Raleigh lies the Reign Lounge, an empty nightclub with a fading baby blue exterior and brown shingle roof, temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Behind the club, its parking lot is full, overflowing with life.

Lyrics to “Koroba” by Tiwa Savage are blaring from the speakers.

“Who no like enjoyment? If money dey for pocket? Shebi na national budget o?”

Dressed in matching lavender ankara sets, aunties with penciled eyebrows and pencil skirts dance to the beat of congas and snare drums. Some Yoruba men are clad in black agbadas with matching loafers, others are flaunting 2018 Super Eagle football jerseys, and a select few Igbo elders wear their hard-earned bright red chief caps.

There’s a 40-minute line forming for the only thing Nigerians can impatiently wait on: jollof rice, chicken, and spicy, mouth-watering suya. As smoke emerges from the coal grill, “Pana” by Tekno is playing instead of “If” by Davido, the go-to song American DJs play for Africans if they know nothing about Afrobeats.

A Moment of Celebration

This is Independence Day.

Nothing, not even a global pandemic, can stop Nigerians across the diaspora from celebrating 60 years of freedom from the grip of British colonizers. Nigerians are the largest African immigrant population in the United States, with over 1,000 Nigerian-born residents in Raleigh alone.

“Eh, people decided to, now,” said Uchenna Richards in his big-city Lagos accent to someone pulling up. “It’s past five o’clock. We’re Nigerians. After you tell people once or twice what to do, they’re like, ‘Ah, I’ma leave this guy.’”

The 38-year-old Richards, a Greensboro resident, has lived in America for the past 25 years and graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. In 2006, he was tired of traveling out of town to celebrate his home country, so he spawned this celebration idea with his friends, and the event has become a tradition ever since.

This year, he wanted to try a COVID-conscious drive-thru cookout. On October 3, the event started at 1 p.m. and ended at 6 p.m., but it seems Nigerians are incapable of following someone else’s instructions. Running on “African Time,” folks were still trickling in at 5:11 p.m., parking along the street, and lingering.

“At the beginning, it was more like, ‘Let’s just get people to just drive through, get some food and go,’” Richards said. “Some people didn’t want to leave, so we figured, we’ll start off by telling people if you want to stay, park down the street.”

Huddled together in masks, groups of young adults are drinking Sprite or Vita Malt, greeting each other. Middle-aged men are slapping the backs of their palms three times followed by a hug. As soon as “Killin Dem” by rapper Burna Boy comes on, the small crowd erupts in cheers.

“At school, I’m PJ or Petronilla. Here, I’m Oge,” said Amaogechukwu Egbuna, sitting on the hood of a black SUV with her friends. Her real name — the name that Nigerian parents labor and pray over — means “in God’s time.”

Egbuna, a first-generation Nigerian-American, attends East Carolina University and came home just to attend the 14th annual celebration with her mom and auntie. She was craving the seasoned food and feeling of community that she couldn’t get at school.

“Being Nigerian is amazing because it’s one of the greatest African countries in the world, one of the most known countries in the world,” the 20-year-old Egbuna said. “You know Nigerians, we love to throw parties and celebrate.”

A Catalyst for Community

In the ever-growing suya line, stands “Mirabelle” Nneoma Uma, wearing a neon green, yellow, and pink dashiki. As a little girl runs through the queue with a ball the size of her head, Uma is checking for messages from her relatives via WhatsApp.

“This event is about getting to meet people, fellow Nigerians, and socializing,” said Uma, who emigrated from Abia State two years ago. “The United States is a very individualistic country, so it’s really nice to be able to socialize and connect with fellow Nigerians, fellow Africans generally. I still really miss Nigeria.”

The 29-year-old is a graduate student at UNC Greensboro. She said the biggest change after moving to the United States was being in a country “where the structure works, roads are well-paved, and opportunity seems possible. The National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) in Nigeria isn’t fully functional.

Uma and her friends turn to face the caterer, Prince Kalu of PK Suya, as he scolds everyone in line and reminds them to not take more than one piece of chicken. When Kalu announces that there’s no more suya left, attendees groan and leave the line, some rolling their eyes, and others sucking their teeth, eliciting a distinctly West African sound of disdain and disgust.

Life in the United States

Yards away, fanning herself comfortably under a tent, wearing a green t-shirt, jeans, and black slip-on hospital shoes is Amaka Ofodile, a member of the Nigerian Nurses Association with over 16 years of nursing experience. She immigrated to the United States 27 years ago and first landed in Newark, New Jersey.

“I don’t know what I was expecting to see,” Ofodile said. “I actually went back home, then after some time, I came back again. I thought in America, money just comes. I didn’t know you’d have to work so hard in order to eat. America is really difficult.”

Along with their three-panel posterboard, members of the Nigerian Nurses Association of North Carolina (NNANC) were handing out informational pamphlets on hypertension and domestic violence, which saw a 134% increase in Nigeria in 2018. Despite its issues, Ofodile misses Enugu state, so events like this bring home closer to her.

Ofodile said, “I miss everything about Nigeria: the food, the social life, the vegetables. Everything is real, organic. We don’t have adulterated food. We’re having some challenges in Nigeria, no 24-hour light, food, and water, but our country is working on it. There is hope.”

Richards believes that this celebration is a necessity, a reminder of the progress made and the progress yet to come.

“I tell people this is the one event where you can get Nigerians of different tribes and there will be no problems,” said Richards, who is Igbo. “Growing up, our generation versus the parents’ generation, there was this big tribalistic problem. When it comes to independence, for that weekend and that day, everyone puts everything aside.”


Edited by: Luke Buxton