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