Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Board of County Commissioners chairwoman Wendy Jacobs announced the creation of a coronavirus task force to address testing and tracing measures and other actions needed to reopen the city.

The Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force will offer guidance for future emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders over the next 100 days, Schewel and Jacobs said Wednesday.

The task force will also seek input from business owners and develop strategies to address the racial disparities laid bare by the pandemic.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, African-Americans account for 38 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths but only 21 percent of the population. 

Schewel said residents have done a great job of reducing the spread of the virus that has claimed the lives of 28 people.

While the county has seen 800 cases, most have been contained to nursing homes, Schewel told the INDY on Wednesday. There has not been much community spread. 

“And as we must continue to do that even as we plan for how Durham will recover, renew, and re-emerge,” Schewel said in the press release. “The task force will tell us how to keep our community safe as we gradually reopen.”

Katie Galbraith, president of Duke Regional Hospital and chair of the Durham Chamber of Commerce, and Maticia Sims, vice-president and corporate controller for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, will co-chair the task force.

“We know people and businesses in our community are hurting and that we must find a way to safely recover the local economy as quickly as we can,” Galbraith said in the press release.

“Our recommendations will be guided by our scientific community and public health experts and informed by and responsive to the needs of the people and businesses in Durham,” added Sims.

Jacobs, mindful that the virus disproportionately kills people of color, said the task force’s mission “will include a strong commitment to racial equity and to a culturally responsive framework that seeks to address widening disparities caused by COVID-19.” 

At the top of the task force’s priorities will be assessing the testing, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment needs that experts say are essential for reopening communities. Part of the task force’s goals will be identifying areas where testing, tracing, and PPE needs are “insufficient” and working “collaboratively to identify strategies for quickly closing the gap,” according to the statement.

The task force will also form “industry-specific roundtables” so business owners can participate in discussions on how to best reopen the city. The roundtables will include representatives from restaurants, retail outlets, hair and nail salons, child care facilities, summer camps, small businesses and startups, gyms, and fitness centers, along with large entertainment venues, shopping districts, tourism, and places of worship.

“We know we need the insights and participation from our businesses if we are going to get this right,” Jacobs said.

They encouraged residents to monitor city and county websites for updates on stay-at-home orders that went into effect on March 29. While Governor Cooper’s orders “are setting the floor for the state,” they said, his office has also encouraged local officials “to consider the local context and guidance from their own public health officials” to determine whether other restrictions are necessary.

On Wednesday, Schewel told the INDY that the city and county are likely to extend their joint stay-at-home order when it expires on May 15, though, as Cooper did, aspects of it may be loosened. Whereas the state recommended that people wear face coverings when social distancing is impossible, Schewel expects Durham to keep it mandatory. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

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