The year in review: Five “PW investigates” stories to remember

The year in review: Five “PW investigates” stories to remember

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Looking back on the pandemic, some of its many disturbing impacts, and one community’s controversial plan to revive its economy

In a year upended and dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Policy Watch covered the crisis with daily stories and investigative pieces from the institutional to the personal.

We also kept our eye on lawmakers and decision-makers at the state and federal level, how they use and misuse their power and what it means for North Carolinians.

Here are five particularly noteworthy stories from the past 12 months:

1) Vague reopening plans are forcing UNC staffers to choose between their jobs and their health

After the pandemic closed UNC System schools and sent students home for a semester of remote learning, the question of bringing them back for the fall was fiercely debated. Students, faculty and staff argued against returning to in-person instruction and congregate living. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the system’s flagship campus, the Orange County Health Director advised against it. But UNC System administrators and chancellors decided to push ahead with their plan anyway.

The result: Large clusters of infections in dorms, sorority and fraternity houses that led to more than 1,500 positive tests, quarantine space being overwhelmed and students being sent home again after just six days. As Policy Watch reported, the process of tracking and reporting infections was far less than transparent even as the crisis unfolded.

Policy Watch’s coverage of the issue foreshadowed the outcome. In June we told the story of Meg Miller, the “house mother” at a fraternity that insisted it would throw parties when students returned and wouldn’t follow mask, gathering size or distancing protocols. When Greek organization parties, in-person rush events and congregate living became a major source of infection clusters at the system’s largest schools, Miller was not surprised.

Miller’s husband Michael Oakley, a master plumber on the school’s facilities staff, also shared concerns about mixed messaging and inadequate protection for lower paid staff members who faced COVID exposure.

From the story:

“Until recently, Meg Miller was the “house mother” at the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house on Columbia Street, just off the UNC-Chapel Hill campus across from the Carolina Inn. She started as a cook but over 25 years her duties expanded to managing the property, doing all the purchasing, and working with a staff of two to keep the house safe and clean for decades of ‘Dekes.’

In many ways, it’s been more than just a job. “I’ve gotten really close to a lot of them,” she said. ”I’ve been to their weddings. I’ve buried some of them.”

Given that longtime bond, Miller thought she could be frank with the men about the basic COVID-19 precautions they would need to observe when returning to school in August. She requested they wear masks and observe social distancing as much as possible to avoid infecting anyone in the house.

‘That didn’t go well,” she said. “They’re not going to wear masks and they’re going to party, no matter what the university or anyone says,” Miller said. “They’ve said that to my face.”

After weeks of pressure from some students, faculty and staff, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced that people would be required to wear masks on campus when the school returned to on-person instruction in August. The move came the same day Orange County announced its own public mask mandate. While the mask mandate on campus will help, there’s simply no way to ensure how careful students will be in their private lives off-campus.

“They [the Dekes] just told me they’re not going to do it,” Miller said. “They’re not going to wear masks in the common areas. They’re going to have parties. They think of it as their choice — they’re going to decide what they do, nobody else. But for some of us, there isn’t really a choice about being safe.”

Miller, 62, has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease — COPD. Her daughter-in-law recently completed chemotherapy. Her 85-year-old mother is a close part of her family. One of her staff members at the house has a daughter with a heart condition.

“You have to think about what could happen if you get this,” Miller said. “And you have to think about the risk to the people you love.”

There are 22 students in the 16-room house, Miller said. It’s a challenge to keep clean and its residents healthy even under normal circumstances. As North Carolina continues to record record numbers of infections and hospitalizations, she hoped the students would understand they have to be as cautious as possible.

“But they just want everything to go back to normal, like it was before,” Miller said. “Well, things aren’t normal right now. So, I quit. I really wasn’t ready to retire — I would have kept on doing it. But not like this.”

2) Health crisis spawns another dangerous epidemic in NC – a spike in domestic violence

In April, as quarantines and business shut-downs changed the lives of all North Carolinians, Policy Watch told the stories of people for whom the pandemic presented an even greater danger — victims of domestic violence.

From that story:

“It was nearly 4 a.m. and Jennifer had been pretending to sleep for two hours. She tried to ignore the sound of her own heartbeat, which pounded faster and harder than seemed possible, so she could hear her husband next to her on the bed.

Was he sleeping? Was he sound asleep?

When she was sure he was, she quietly slipped out of the bedroom and down the hall to retrieve the garbage bag she had hidden behind the washing machine that afternoon. She had packed it with three pairs of jeans, several shirts, a few days’ worth of socks and underwear — as much as she felt she could discreetly squirrel away while doing the laundry. She also hid her car key in the bag, detached from the ring of keys she wouldn’t need anymore — the apartment, the mailbox, her husband’s SUV. She didn’t want them to jingle as she made for the parking lot.

She was miles away, on the highway headed for a friend’s place in Charlotte, when she realized she was gripping her steering wheel so hard her hands were going numb. That made her laugh, for some reason, and suddenly she was sobbing. It went on that way — laughing and sobbing — for almost the entire hour’s drive.

When her friend opened the apartment door to let her in, her shocked look told Jennifer she looked even worse than she thought. She hadn’t looked in a mirror all week, but she could feel the swelling on the right side of her face. It was tender and hot all the time, which made it difficult to even pretend to sleep. Her friend hugged her and they cried together, and then Jennifer was laughing again.

“I guess the whole thing just seemed ridiculous,” she said in an interview with Policy Watch nearly a month after that night. “I mean, it wasn’t perfect. We fought sometimes, like most people. But the last weeks it was like it was a whole other level.”

“He hit me, he shoved me, he pulled my hair, he took my phone away,” she said. “It was almost every day by the time I left. It wasn’t until we weren’t going to work, we were just in the house together all the time, I realized how bad it was. I realized he was going to kill me. And it just felt ridiculous it took all this to make me realize that.”

Jennifer isn’t alone. Police departments across the state are reporting an uptick in domestic violence calls. In the spring, Charlotte reported its domestic violence calls were up 17% over the same time last year. The High Point Police said their calls increased 21%. For the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, it was 30%.

“Survivors in all parts of the state face tremendous barriers to seeking and receiving help,” said Sherry Honeycutt Everett, Legal and Policy Director for the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We are hearing story after story of victims who are isolated at home in dangerous conditions, at a time when our intervention and response infrastructures are operating at drastically reduced capacity.”

“We also know that background checks and handgun permits for firearm purchases have soared to historic highs in North Carolina in recent weeks,” Everett said. “Which means that there are survivors who are at home with abusive partners who are newly armed.”

3) PW Exclusive: UNC System exploring budget cuts of up to 50%

Policy Watch was first to report on a number of ways in which the pandemic impacted the UNC System and how its leaders reacted.

In July, as students, staff and community members pushed to keep the fall semester virtual, Policy Watch obtained a memo from UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey to the system’s chancellors in which he asked for their plans for budget cuts of up to 50%. The memo, which Ramsey characterized as “not a request” but instead “a directive,” underscored system leadership’s belief that the financial model of the system would not work without students on campus and taking classes in-person.

The three largest UNC System campuses — N.C. State University, UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University — were all forced to close when they were overwhelmed by infections. The other 14 campuses, most of which saw dramatically fewer infections, managed to keep students on campus throughout the semester.

As campuses ready for the Spring semester, the controversy over whether and how to bring more students back to these campuses continues and Policy Watch continues to cover it.

This initial look at the competing views of and priorities in public higher education in North Carolina — and the power struggle at its highest levels of leadership — was an important part of the of the discussion of how and why high level decisions were made in the pandemic.

From that story:.

“The email, from UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey to the system’s chancellors, cited the potential impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility that campuses may again close after reopening next month.

In the email Ramsey asked the chancellors for several documents:

*A report from each chancellor on the financial impact of closing their campus and reducing tuition and room and board fees.

*A plan from each chancellor to reduce their budgets by between 25% and 50%, to account for the reduced revenue resulting from reduced enrollment under various degrees of closure.

*A projection of how the cancellation of fall athletics will affect each campus and their specific plans for revenue shortfalls.

*A General Administration analysis of the long-term impact on “UNC institutions that have struggled financially and remain on shakier financial footing.”

“These plans should not be general in nature,” Ramsey wrote. “They should be very specific and include details of which programs will be shuttered, which positions will be furloughed, laid off or eliminated entirely and all other details of how a 25% to 50% spending reduction will be handled.”

Ramsey ended the email by stressing he wanted the plans quickly.

‘This in not a request,”Ramsey wrote. “This is a directive, and I want each of you to respond to this email confirming that you understand that you are to take no action until the board and new President have met to make a decision about how to proceed. I also need to know by tomorrow when you will have this analysis and information available so that we can schedule a meeting to review it and discuss it’.”

4) COVID-19 reignites dark memories for those who survived the AIDS epidemic

For most Americans, the COVID-19 epidemic has been an unprecedented experience. But for LGBTQ people, it has been a dark echo of another tragic period in of ignorance, misinformation, scapegoating and inadequate government response to a national health crisis — the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In the early days of the pandemic in America, Policy Watch examined the parallels between these two periods through conversations with medical experts and LGBTQ people living through the second great plague of their lifetimes.

From that story:

“Twice a week, Brad Batch goes on a walk with some friends in Raleigh. The Wednesday and Sunday outings are about more than just getting some fresh air. They’re an important and communal part of his week — a chance to get out of the house, have a laugh, catch up with people over coffee.

But last month Batch, who is 67, told the group he wasn’t going anymore — at least until the COVID-19 pandemic was over.

He thought someone might say he was silly, overly cautious. Restaurants and stores hadn’t yet closed. There was no statewide stay-at-home order. College students were forging ahead with spring break beach vacations and people were taking advantage of suddenly rock-bottom airfare to do some impromptu traveling.

“No one laughed. They said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I get it.’” Batch said. “Everyone was dead serious.”

These were Batch’s friends from the LGBT center. Like many gay men his age, they also lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s.

For many survivors, for the doctors who fought AIDS in its earliest days and those now living with it, COVID-19 brings back memories and traumas. It is a tragic reminder of the lessons the nation failed to learn in the last 40 years.

Now, in the daily headlines, newscasts and online conversations, many veterans of that epidemic say they see disturbing parallels to one of the darkest periods in their lives.

Misinformation.

Fear.

Scapegoating.

A dismissive, partisan response from Washington.

It’s something they’d hoped they’d never relive.

But some feel uniquely prepared.

“At some point during the AIDS crisis this switch just happened,” Batch said. “You felt like, you’ve got to deal with this. You’re going to lose people. You’re going to bury people. But you are going to be smart, you’re going to do what you can the best you can and you are going to get through it.”

5) PW Investigation: Proposed Catawba Indian casino no sure bet for surrounding community

As the pandemic shut down large parts of the hospitality industry, the small mountain community of Kings Mountain pushed ahead on a controversial casino project with the Catawba Indian Nation.

Supported by changes in federal policy, the South Carolina-based tribe began pursuing legal avenues to open a casino in North Carolina. That move brought it into conflict with some local residents, as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who had a long and difficult journey to establish Indian gaming in North Carolina, where they now own two casinos.

In a series of investigative stories, Policy Watch examined the possible conflicts of interest of local leaders pushing the project, the political and financial ties of its developer to powerful GOP lawmakers and the Trump administration, possible impacts on the area and its people and the complex history and current state of Indian gaming itself.

From our October story from Kings Mountain:

“Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler is among several well-connected politicians, developers and major landowners who could financially benefit from the controversial $273 million Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort, a Policy Watch investigation has found.

But nearly 30 years of research — and North Carolina’s recent history — suggest average homeowners in Cleveland County shouldn’t expect a dramatic bump in home values from the casino. Nor, studies suggest, should families not named ‘Neisler’ expect a huge boost to their incomes.

Neisler has been one of the casino project’s most prominent local supporters. Last month he defended it at an online congressional committee hearing, calling it a potential economic engine for a county where 19% of residents now live beneath the federal poverty threshold.

“Obviously those kind of projects don’t come around but once in a millennium for our area, you know?” Neisler told Policy Watch.

But the casino could also be a once-in-a-millennium financial opportunity for Neisler and his family.

During last month’s hearing, Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) questioned Neisler about potential conflicts of interest in his support of the project. Neisler did not disclose his family’s millions of dollars in land holdings near the casino site, just off I-85 on the way into Kings Mountain.

Neisler Brothers Inc. owns 865 acres of land on five parcels within a mile of the site. Some of that property is leased by a mining company, but most of it is undeveloped. County land records show Neisler’s family company is, by far, the largest single owner of undeveloped land around the proposed casino site.”