The Durham County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Thursday to move 250 residents out of city- and county-run shelters and into the Marriott hotel in Research Triangle Park to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The commissioners’ decision comes one day after Governor Cooper announced that FEMA had approved funding to identify 16,500 units in hotels, motels, trailers, and college dormitories across the state to shelter people in “unstable housing” who have tested positive for the virus or have been exposed to COVID-19.
Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the board, said the decision is in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep people safe through social distancing.
“It’s not possible to do that in a shelter,” Jacobs told the INDY. “Any congregational setting is ripe for the spread of the virus.”
She pointed to COVID-19 outbreaks at an Orange County nursing home, where 60 people have tested positive for the virus and two have died, and the Butner federal correctional facility, where 58 people have contracted the virus.
“Any type of group situation is vulnerable,” and “people experiencing homelessness are in a vulnerable situation,” Jacobs said.
The county commissioners arrived at a contractural agreement with the Marriot after consulting with a homeless task force that’s part of the county’s emergency operations center.
The commissioners first considered moving only those residents most at risk while leaving some residents at Urban Ministries and Families Moving Forward, “but this would have meant providing additional staff because now we would be supporting multiple shelters,” according to the meeting agenda.
“The operational reality for the county is that public health and department of social services workers who would normally help us staff our shelters are completely consumed with COVID-19 related activities. The county staff designated to help open and run shelters do not have the operational capacity to do so,” according to the agenda.
Instead, the county “is essentially taking over the hotel” with a base rate of $45 a night for all of its rooms, with an additional $31.75 per night for all occupied rooms.
The county reserved the rooms with a $100,000 security deposit and will be responsible for cleaning, and “mutually agreed upon damages.”
County officials say the “not-to-exceed” dollar amount for the contract is $1,669,000.
Although Jacobs said 250 people will move into the hotel, the agenda notes that “it is extremely difficult to say how many people we will end up needing to house in this fashion or for how long.”
What’s more, the commissioners say they are continuing their effort to line up a second hotel where homeless individuals who have been exposed to coronavirus or have been exposed, or who have tested positive can be housed for a sufficient isolation period.
“We’re in a plague right now,” said Jacobs, who recently celebrated a virtual Passover Seder with family and friends.
“The rate of spread in Durham County is seven percent. In Washington State it’s 10 percent,” she added. “We want to keep it low.”