INDY Week 1.05.2022

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Raleigh Durham Chapel Hill January 5, 2022

Crowdsourced review behemoths like Yelp put power in the hands of the consumer. In an age of pandemic frustration, who really wins? BY LENA GELLER, P. 16


Raleigh W Durham W Chapel Hill

What's ahead in health, p. 12

VOL. 39 NO. 1

PHOTO BY JADE WILSON

CONTENTS NEWS 4

From Omicron to local and national elections, here are 22 things to watch in 2022. BY LEIGH TAUSS

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A lawsuit alleges Duke is trying to acquire a clinic owned by physicians who also work on the university's faculty for zero dollars. BY THOMASI MCDONALD

10 Mask mandates, Leandro, Critical Race Theory: here's what dominated the discourse around public education last year. BY GREG CHILDRESS 12

The team at NC Health News takes an in-depth look at the year ahead. BY NC HEALTH NEWS STAFF

ARTS & CULTURE 16 Crowdsourced review platforms like Yelp and Google put power in the hands of the consumer. In an angry age, who really wins? BY LENA GELLER 20 See a selection of Sundance films in Winston-Salem.

THE REGULARS

BY BYRON WOODS

3 Quickbait 21 Culture Calendar

CORRECTIONS In our December 22 print edition, we mis-reported the first name of the former owner and landlord of Braswell Apartments in Durham. The correct name is Vinston Braswell. We also misreported the number of voters needed to petition for a referendum on elections changes; the correct number is 5,000, or 10 percent of Raleigh voters in the 2019 municipal election. And an editorial error implied that Pierce Freelon was elected to his position on Durham's City Council by voters; in fact, Freelon was appointed.

COVER Illustration by Annie Maynard

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Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards

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C RE ATI V E

A D V E RTI S I N G

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Senior Writer Leigh Tauss

Contributors Will Atkinson, Madeline Crone, Grant Golden, Spencer Griffith, Lucas Hubbard, Layla Khoury-Hanold, Brian Howe, Lewis Kendall, Kyesha Jennings, Glenn McDonald, Anna Mudd, Dan Ruccia, Rachel SImon

Annie Maynard

Wake County MaryAnn Kearns

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BACK TA L K

In our December 22 edition of the paper, Thomasi McDonald wrote about Durham’s Braswell Apartments tenants, who were asked to leave their homes following the sale of the property to a new landlord right around the holidays. Many tenants are elderly, have health problems, little money, and nowhere else to go. Our readers had thoughts.

“The Cities of Durham and Raleigh have enough money that they could buy these properties when they become available and help keep them affordable. Both municipalities should be actively and aggressively working to preserve affordable/low income housing!” wrote commenter AALIYAH BLAYLOCK on Facebook. “What is the mayor saying about this,” asks Facebook commenter CARLOS LAMONT JACKSON. “These are our elders—what have the black churches done to help out? This is the time we must make the term community mean community and come together to assist these elders of society …. we mock certain communities but in the #asian communities they would already have a place to go and live. Why? “Community strong needs to happen …. A true community and not just a neighbor hood would join and make sure they are not evicted but actually elevated to better and cleaning living spaces.” “Why doesn’t Durham have laws to protect these tenants?” asks Facebook commenter ANN DEUPREE.

According to later reports, the property’s new owner, Reformation Asset Management, won’t evict the tenants right away. RAM owner CHARLES BULTHUIS said the tenants should leave temporarily due to falling-down roofs and walls, flooding, rodent and insect infestation, and other issues that RAM wants to address. For the web, McDonald also wrote about Durham County commissioners’ decision to approve construction of a new youth jail and how activists who opposed the new facility felt betrayed by the vote after a task force recommended delaying a vote on the proposal for at least six months. “Welcome to Durham 2021,” wrote Facebook commenter MEGAN GRAY. “All proposals for development are now welcome and encouraged, no matter the view of the community.” WANT TO SEE YOUR NAME IN BOLD?

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Q UICKBA I T The Great and Powerful Omicron BY LEIGH TAUSS ltauss@indyweek.com

O

micron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. Its literal translation is “little O.” You are probably more familiar with omega, which means “great O.” But despite the letter’s diminutive place in the Grecian alphabetical hierarchy, Omicron’s arrival has been anything but little. Since North Carolina reported its first case of the new, highly contagious COVID-19 strain in early December, Omicron has been rapidly spreading in communities throughout the state. Add to that Christmas and New Year’s gatherings and celebrations and you have the makings of an unprecedented surge. Last week, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported the highest number of cases in a single day: 19,174. However, this is partly because the state ramped up testing in anticipation of a holiday spike. Fewer cases were reported Monday, but the proportion of folks testing positive crept up by about 5 percent. The silver lining: if experts are right, Omicron might burn itself out rather quickly because of its rapid spread, potentially bringing the pandemic to an end sooner. Or not. Who knows. Happy New Year.

1,732,568 Total Cases

1,454,555 Molecular (PCR) Positive Cases

278,013 Antigen Positive Cases

69%

Daily Cases 20,000 15,000 10,000 5,000 0

12/5

12/10

12/20

12/15

12/30

12/25

1/4

Is North Carolina seeing a downward trajectory over 14 days, or sustained leveling in new cases? Daily Cases Reported by Date 20,000 15,000 10,000

of adults are fully vaccinated

74%

of adults have received one dose

5,000 0 2/1

5/1

8/1

11/1

2//1

5//1

8/1

11/1

2/1

Source: N.C. DHHS INDYweek.com

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Twenty-two Things to Watch in 2022 The fight over gerrymandering, rising gun violence, and the pandemic’s Omicron era will shape the next year. BY LEIGH TAUSS ltauss@indyweek.com

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t’s hard to think about the future when the last year hardly feels like it happened at all. Yet, here we are, at the very start of a not-quite palindromic 2022 teeming with uncertainties. If 2021 was defined by a feeling of limbo—dangling between the darkest days of the pandemic and a justout-of-reach virus-free future without lonely holidays, mask mandates, and so much death—what issues are poised to transform and define the next 300-some tomorrows? Prognostication is a dangerous hobby. Even the luckiest mystics run the chance of being wrong. Still, some things about this year are certain: We will still be fighting the pandemic. The legal battle over gerrymandering will continue to play out in the courts. Taller, denser development will cause friction in communities. And there will be an election or two that will certainly cause a lot of drama. Suffice it to say, we’ve done a little thinking about 2022 for you. Here’s what we’ll be watching.

cases. The pandemic isn’t going anywhere, at least not yet. Our “new normal” is now just “normal.”

1. The third year of the pandemic

The year 2021 was one of the deadliest in recent history in the Bull City, with a total of 47 homicides. Gun violence has been a mounting problem for Durham, and how to address it will be one of the biggest challenges leaders will face this year. Many of the shootings have been linked to gang violence and recruitment, which explains the involvement of younger teenagers in shootings. Last month, two teens were killed and four others wounded when the SUV they were trav-

Last month, the CDC reported the first case of the Omicron variant on U.S. soil. Now, it’s everywhere in North Carolina and is accounting for the majority of new COVID-19 cases. Add to that the stagnating vaccination rates in adults and the last two weeks of holiday travel and gatherings, and we’ve got a recipe for this new year starting out with a surge in COVID-19 4

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2. Gerrymandering As you read this, the a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court is hearing lawsuits challenging heavily gerrymandered district maps for the U.S. Congress and N.C. legislature. Central to these cases is the question of whether GOP leaders erred in making the maps by ignoring racial data and in turn diluting Black votes. The judges plan to rule in the case by January 11, at which point the state Supreme Court, which leans Democratic, could take it up. Should the election move forward with the current maps, Republicans could capture 11 of 14 congressional seats and have the potential to regain a supermajority in the legislature. If the maps are thrown out, we could be looking at further delays to the election as litigation drags on.

3. Durham’s historic gun violence spike

Womens’ March on Raleigh on Saturday, January 21, 2017. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to roll back abortion rights in 2022. PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN eling in was shot up. Some of the passengers were in middle school.

4. Restaurants revival This year is poised to be a big one for the Triangle’s recovering restaurant scene, with a slew of hotly anticipated openings. Giorgios Bakatsias has four projects expected to launch in 2022, including a pizza bar, a French bistro, and a Spanish tapas joint, while former Top Chef star Katsuji Tanabe plans to open A’verde Cocina and Tequila Bar in Cary. Additionally, Raleigh chef Scott Crawford has a steak house in the works for Cary’s new Fenton development. The resurrection of restaurants won’t be without challenges, as the industry is still facing staffing shortages and financially recovering from forced closures earlier in the pandemic. How restaurateurs overcome those obstacles this year will shape the industry for years to come.

5. Commuter rail plans taking shape Will the Triangle finally get commuter rail? The dream of workers avoiding a bumper-to-bumper morning drive on I-40 is starting to take shape, as GoTriangle

plots a transit line connecting Durham to Raleigh and either Clayton or Garner. The project will cost up to $2 billion just to plan, and while federal funds will likely cover half the expense, taxpayers will shoulder the remaining cost. But if plans move forward, construction on a rail system could begin as early as 2025. This isn’t the Triangle’s first go-round on this track: planners spent more than a decade concocting another rail plan before abandoning it in 2006 when federal funding wasn’t made available. And we all remember what happened to Durham–Chapel Hill light rail plans in 2019.

6. The national fight to protect abortion rights After the Supreme Court punted a Texas law banning nearly all abortions in the state back to lower courts, shaking the precedent set by landmark case Roe v. Wade, the nation is preparing to wage a state-by-state legal battle over abortion rights in the years to come. Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, we’ll likely see a flurry of conservative-led states enacting similar abortion bans. Unless the dynamic of the court shifts dramatically, women face the very real possibility of losing legal control over their own bodies. It’s


A 2022 parks bond could determine the future development of Dorothea Dix Park in downtown Raleigh. PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN a nightmare scenario. There’s not much more to say.

7. Chapel Hill’s new town council After a slate of pro-growth candidates swept the election last year, the Chapel Hill Town Council looks very different in 2022. The local NIMBY advocacy group CHALT—the Chapel Hill Association for a Livable Town—is unlikely to remain a dominant voice in local politics any longer. When it comes to questions of development, the new council will likely prioritize denser, taller projects in the town’s core.

8. Raleigh’s parks bond Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin wants to finish what she started in 2019, when voters overwhelmingly passed an $80 million affordable housing bond. Now, the Raleigh City Council is eyeing a hefty parks package to kickstart the Dix Park redevelopment and revamp the city’s greenways. The council decided to forgo the bond in 2020, facing the economic fallout from the pandemic. On a lengthy ballot, a bond potentially topping $100 million will be a big ask from voters, and it will be on the current council to sell it while also campaigning to hold on to their seats.

9. The primary Campaign filing for the 2022 March primary had already begun when courts ruled to postpone the election until May. Meanwhile, a dense field of hotly contested races

is already narrowing. Key races, including the Wake County district attorney’s race and a new congressional district encompassing Durham and Chapel Hill, will likely be determined in the primary. But whether the primary actually happens in May is up to the courts to decide as they weigh a new set of gerrymandering lawsuits challenging the legality of the recently redrawn district maps.

10. Infrastructure funding Although President Joe BIden’s Build Back Better bill has faced pushback from Republican leaders (and a certain Democrat or two), his recently passed $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package means significant federal funding will trickle down to the local level for much needed improvements. In North Carolina, that means money for transit, bridges, and broadband. Hopefully, local leaders will put that cash to good use.

11. The housing bubble The Triangle’s housing scene was already red hot when the pandemic descended and more folks decided North Carolina was the place to be. Now, it’s pretty much nuclear, with homes under $300,000 flying off the market as soon as they’re listed—or, somehow, even snapped up before. In the last year, housing prices have shot up thanks to an influx of out-of-state buyers and limited supply. Unless the economy completely collapses, expect that trend to continue this year. INDYweek.com

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UNC-Chapel Hill enters another year roiled by political turmoil.

12. The drama at UNC–Chapel Hill

PHOTO BY JADE WILSON

Between the university’s botched hiring of renowned journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and continued questions about the political influence of the conservative-leaning Board of Governors on the university’s academic agenda, 2021 was a tumultuous year for UNC–Chapel Hill. A recent report revealed that nine of the school’s top academic leaders have left the university since May, and squabbles over Chris Clemens’s appointment as the new provost—a “strong conservative voice,” it’s been noted—likely won’t help matters. Unless concessions are made, and business is conducted a bit more transparently, 2022 could see more controversy and turnover at the university as tensions continue to flare.

attorney Lorrin Freeman facing a formidable challenger in the Democratic primary, it will be interesting to see if some reforms trickle down to Wake County as well.

20. Staggering Raleigh elections, lengthening terms, and paying the mayor and council members more Leading up to the municipal election this fall, the debates over whether to restructure the Raleigh City Council’s term limits, increase pay, or stagger elections are likely to be among #ralpol’s hottest issues. The current council’s detractors will frame any change as a blatant power grab, but it’s more complicated than that. Increasing pay could open the doors to more diverse representation, something Raleigh has needed desperately for some time.

13. Downtown South With a rezoning granted, plans for John Kane’s ambitious Downtown South in Raleigh are expected to move forward next year, albeit without a soccer stadium as originally planned. The new commercial and residential hub could revitalize the former industrial area south of the city center, but opponents believe it will also fuel gentrification in the area, home to some of the last remaining affordable neighborhoods in Raleigh.

14. Mayor Elaine O’Neal In the fall, Durham voters elected the city’s first Black woman mayor, Elaine O’Neal. She entered office as the city faces an uptick in gun violence, and she has vowed to put an end to it through programs aiming to mentor young people and provide living-wage employment. But it remains to be seen if such programs will be enough to curb the violence or whether current trends will continue to haunt the Bull City in 2022.

15. Schools continuing to adapt Another year with COVID will mean another year of headaches for local school boards caught between a rock and hard place when it comes to balancing education and public safety. With children age five and older now eligible for vaccination, we hopefully won’t see a return to remote learning, but schools will need to continue to innovate around the pandemic while facing scrutiny from parents on both sides of the debate. 6

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21. Working from home 16. The Greene Tract in Chapel Hill One of the most heated battles in Orange County has been the debate over this jointly owned parcel of land that was used as a landfill for four decades before it was shut down in 2013. Recently, local leaders voted to preserve 60 acres with a permanent conservation easement, with another 100 acres potentially available for future development and affordable housing. No doubt future development plans will face vehement opposition from a certain subset of conservation and neighborhood advocates that fared poorly in the last election.

17. Separated bus lanes in Raleigh While commuter rail may still very much be a dream, separated bus lanes in Raleigh are getting closer to becoming a reality. Infrastructure improvements and exclusive lanes for bus rapid transit are in the works for the New Bern Avenue corridor connecting WakeMed hospital to downtown, a key commuting route that could significantly boost ridership and get more cars off the road.

18. The midterm election Two years into President Joe Biden’s term and with post-census redistricting in play, the 2022 midterms will have massive implications for state and local politics. Midterm elections typically don’t go well for the party controlling the White House, and the threat of a red wave bringing back a Republican legislative supermajority in North Carolina, plus a majority in the U.S. House and Senate, and all the mayhem that entails is very real. If Democrats lose the legal battle over gerrymandering, they’ll need a substantial voter drive to stave off Republican gains and hold on to what little power they have, in North Carolina and in Washington.

19. Criminal justice reforms During the first half of her term as Durham district attorney, Satana Deberry made big strides in reforming the city’s justice system, including ending the cash bail system and expunging millions in unpaid traffic fines and other charges. We hope Deberry persists with her progressive agenda in 2022, and with Wake County district

This year, companies that pushed employees to return to the workplace en masse faced backlash from workers now accustomed to the benefits of working from home. How industries grapple with managing the balance between productivity and presence will reshape work as we know it, and the companies that are most successful will find creative ways to foster a positive workplace culture outside of endless Zoom meetings and break-room Ping-Pong tables. That said, remote work is still very much a luxury in a labor market dominated by low-paying service jobs, a dynamic unlikely to shift much in 2022.

22. Tech scene growth If there’s one industry that wasn’t crippled by the pandemic, it’s the local tech scene. Raleigh-based voice over IP monopoly Bandwidth has already begun construction on a massive half-million-square-foot complex off of Reedy Creek Road, and it feels like every day a new company moves into RTP. While companies like Citrix have experienced layoffs, and there are rumblings of a sale of the Raleigh software company in the works, trends are mostly looking positive for the industry, setting the stage for 2022 to be another year of innovation and growth. W


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Durham Duke University PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER

New Suit A lawsuit alleges Duke University is trying to take over a longstanding, for-profit clinic owned by physicians who are also on Duke’s faculty—for zero dollars. BY THOMASI MCDONALD tmcdonald@indyweek.com

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uke University is in hot water, legally speaking, once again. Late last month, a longtime Duke physician and School of Medicine faculty member filed a complaint against his employer, accusing university officials of conspiring to take over a for-profit doctor- and faculty-owned clinic that generates revenues of about $1 billion each year. At the center of the complaint is the continued existence of the Private Diagnostic Clinic (PDC), an independent company controlled by physicians and one of the first faculty private physician groups in the United States. The complaint claims that the university has conspired with “certain” PDC managers to dissolve the PDC, and is attempting to hire PDC members to work with the School of Medicine’s newly formed Duke Faculty Practice (DFP). The complaint was filed December 20 on behalf of the PDC by Eugene Moretti, an anesthesiologist and critical 8

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care specialist who has been a member of the private medical practice for over 20 years. With billions of dollars at stake, the complaint filed in Durham County Superior Court claims that Duke health administrators are attempting to take control of the lucrative medical practice for “zero dollars” if offer of employment with the DFP is “accepted by all or substantially all of PDC’s physicians.” “It seems clear that one of Duke’s overarching objectives here is to terminate PDC by taking over substantially all of PDC’s assets and operations,” stated Joseph Lynch, an attorney with the New York firm Epstein, Becker & Green, which was retained by the PDC’s board last summer to evaluate Duke’s plan to take over the PDC. “In my more than 35 years as a health law attorney, I have never seen a physician practice like PDC transferred

to any acquirer at a [zero-dollar] purchase price,” Lynch also stated in a memo to the board. A Duke University official last week told the INDY that Moretti’s lawsuit “has no basis in fact or law,” and the university will offer a vigorous defense in response. Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman, said that “for a number of months,” Duke and the PDC “have been engaged in productive dialogue around alignment of our respective patient care, teaching and research missions.” “Duke has proposed that faculty physicians who are already employed by Duke for education and research become full-time Duke employees for their clinical practice as well,” he told the INDY in an email. “We believe this will lead to greater operational efficiency, a better patient experience, the ability to recruit and retain top talent, and enhancements in community health,” he added. “The lawsuit filed by Dr. Moretti, who is not a representative of PDC leadership, is an attempt to obstruct these discussions about alignment and impede Duke’s ability to provide the highest-quality health care services to our patients.” In the complaint, Moretti claims that after having repeatedly failed to gain control and ultimately dissolve the PDC, Duke is now resorting to “unlawful, unfair, and improper tactics to destroy the company and take over its business and goodwill.” The PDC was founded in 1931 as an independent for-profit group practice “that has a long relationship with Duke Hospital Dr. Eugene Moretti and Duke University.” From PHOTO COURTESY OF the onset, the PDC “was INFINITE GLOBAL self-governed and not subject to University direction,” according to the complaint. All PDC members hold academic appointments to the faculty of Duke University, and its 1,850 member physicians treat nearly 2 million patients each year at nearly 150 clinics across North Carolina and Virginia. The private faculty member practice also “contributes over $60 million annually to Duke University for medical center research and academics,” which is money that supports “hiring faculty, running research programs, and contributing to the growth of the School of Medicine and DUHS,” according to the complaint. Duke and the PDC were months away from celebrating the anniversary of a 1972 partnership agreement that provided “a structure in which the members can engage in the


private practice of medicine and dentistry for private gains, while retaining their academic relationship with Duke University,” according to the agreement. In October, however, Eugene Washington, Duke’s chancellor for health affairs and president/CEO of Duke University Health System, terminated the partnership agreement, the complaint says. Moretti states that Washington wrote in the termination letter that Duke nonetheless looked forward to continuing its work with the PDC “in a cooperative manner consistent with our shared goals.” “As we move forward, I want to make it clear that we have no intention of taking steps to undermine the PDC or to compromise its continued existence,” the complaint claims Washington wrote. “We have no intention to disrupt, create economic disadvantages for, or otherwise adversely impact physicians who choose to remain members of the PDC and continue their practices in that structure.” But Moretti said the words of Duke’s administrators are directly at odds with their actions. Erica Harris, an attorney with the Houston-based firm Susman Godfrey, is among the lawyers representing Moretti. Harris told the INDY last week that Mary E. Klotman, dean of Duke medical school, is the “public face of the takeover.” In the complaint, Moretti asserts that “Klotman has the power to hire, fire, demote, and promote the department chairs, and their careers are advanced by staying in the Dean’s good graces.” That’s a problem, the veteran anesthesiologist alleges, because “some managers of the PDC, who are also [department chairs] have proved unable to make decisions that are in the best interest of the PDC.” The 39-page complaint outlines a series of actions that began in August to dissolve the lucrative practice. Moretti states that Duke administrators created a pretext to explain why the school decided “to interfere with and take over the PDC’s business” and issued a mandate stating that physicians who perform research at Duke must quit the PDC and join the university-controlled Duke Faculty Practice. The pretext Duke used to justify the mandate was “regulatory and compliance risks from the National Institutes of Health (NIH),” according to the complaint. Harris, the attorney, told the INDY that Duke has not provided a satisfactory answer showing how the PDC is out of compliance with NIH’s regulations. “We have asked Duke to show us the regulations,” Harris says. “We don’t believe

there [are] any such regulations.” By the summer of 2021, Moretti stated that Duke revealed its “true goal” to force the PDC’s dissolution when Klotman, along with five department chairs with the School of Medicine, “began lobbying the physician members of the PDC to vote to dissolve the company.” Moretti also accused the PDC’s own board of failing “to respond adequately to Duke’s efforts to destroy the PDC.” “In light of Duke’s and the PDC Board’s lack of transparency, certain PDC members created a message board to anonymously share information and opinions on Duke’s attempted takeover,” Moretti states. “The message board allowed the physicians to remain anonymous because … they feared retaliation for publicly opposing Duke’s takeover of the PDC.” Moretti points to a February 2021 email from Klotman that announced the School of Medicine, with support from Duke Health and Duke University leadership, would create the DFP, which would take over the PDC’s business and operations. The email contained the unsettling caveat that all “faculty in clinical departments who perform research … must be fully employed by the School of Medicine in the DFP prior to July 2022.” “The PDC could lose hundreds of physician members and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue: if the departments of Medicine, Psychiatry, Neurology, Orthopedic Surgery, Surgery, Obstetrics & Gynecology exit the PDC to join a Duke-controlled entity,” Moretti states in the complaint. More than 1,000 PDC physicians who participated in a survey opposed the takeover, according to the complaint. And in late November, a committee of 11 at-large members appointed by the PDC board issued a report that unanimously concluded that “the claims raised by Dr. Moretti are not baseless and have merit.” Moretti is demanding a jury trial in the complaint, which lists Duke University, Duke University Health System, and former PDC board member Anthony Joseph Viera, chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, as defendants. The PDC is listed on the complaint as a “nominal defendant,” particularly the company’s board members who, like Viera, chair departments at Duke University medical school and within PDC. Harris says the PDC managers who are cooperating and conspiring with Duke to enforce the takeover are doing it out of “self-interest, not in the interest of the PDC.” W

Eugene Moretti’s complaint against Duke is just the latest news that casts the prestigious private school into the glare of an uncomfortable public spotlight regarding the treatment of its workers. Last March, Duke administrators hired a law firm with a national reputation for cracking up unions after Duke University Press employees announced plans to create a union to collectively bargain for competitive salaries, paid leave, fairness, and transparency. Similarly, in 2016, Duke graduate students formed a union with the Service Employees International Union, and Duke University officials responded by spending “millions to fight the union effort,” according to the Duke Graduate Students Union website. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and the university’s chief communications officer, later disputed that characterization of events. "The National Labor Relations Board held a free and fair election and the union lost," he told the INDY. "Duke currently has amicable relations with four unions that represent more than 1,500 employees who do vital work in a number of areas across the university and health system." Also last year, Theodore D. Segal, a 1977 Duke graduate, published Point of Reckoning: The Fight For Racial Justice at Duke University, which chronicled the school’s historical maltreatment of its employees—predominantly Black janitors, maids, and other service workers, who were historically underpaid. “The old way of running Duke was you hired ten Blacks to do the job of two and you paid them a tenth of what they should be paid,” Segal wrote. “Under this system, Duke’s maids were paid $0.43 per hour in 1951. By the start of 1959, the hourly amount was $0.65 per hour, earning maids a paycheck of $19.50 for a standard thirty-hour workweek.” INDYweek.com

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North Carolina PHOTO COURTESY OF UNSPLASH

increased security at school board meetings and for the superintendent. NC Policy Watch reported on the concerted effort in North Carolina by right-leaning political operatives to use face mask mandates and CRT as wedge issues to turn this year’s local elections and the 2022 midterms in the GOP’s favor. The strategy worked to perfection in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor, in a tightly contested governor’s race in which Youngkin’s opposition to CRT became a winning issue. Most educators say CRT, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped American law and public policy, is not taught in K-12 classrooms. Nonetheless, after Youngkin’s victory, North Carolina superintendent of public instruction Catherine Truitt shared a celebratory tweet and vowed to fight for the same “principles” as Youngkin. During tours of North Carolina’s Republican stronghold this year, Truitt promised the GOP faithful that she’d fight to remove CRT from classrooms. “As your superintendent, I will continue to do everything I can to stop CRT and eradicate it from classrooms,” Truitt said during a June “meet and greet” with Orange County Republicans. “Republicans in NC are united on this.”

Low Grade

Critical Race Theory

Fights over mask mandates and Critical Race Theory characterized the discourse around public education in North Carolina last year—and with midterms in the fall, we’re likely on track for more of the same. BY GREG CHILDRESS backtalk@indyweek.com

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ritical Race Theory (CRT) and face mask mandates dominated the state’s education headlines in 2021, even as students and teachers struggled to recover from a year of remote learning that saw standardized test scores fall to new lows. Racial and economic inequities in education, exposed by the pandemic, were quickly shoved to the background by a loud minority of irate parents who complained that school boards were trashing their rights by forcing students to wear face coverings to slow the spread of the highly transmissible COVID-19 virus. Disparities in high-speed internet connections and school funding shined an unflattering light on the inequal10

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ity of resources found in many of the state’s low-wealth, rural districts. In Buncombe County, the school district’s face mask mandate so angered a group of parents that they attempted to take over the school board. The faux coup soon became one of the lowlights of the pandemic. The unruly crowd forced the board of education to call a recess; members of the audience then purported to nominate and appoint themselves to the board. In Greensboro, the Guilford County Board of Education and Superintendent Sharon Contreras received threats due to the district’s face mask mandate. The board

The fact that educators say CRT isn’t taught in K-12 schools didn’t stop North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly from approving House Bill 324 to restrict what students could be taught about the nation’s racial history. Nor did it stop parents, mostly white but also some Black, from appearing at local school board meetings to complain that their children are being indoctrinated with CRT. When pressed to explain CRT, however, most could not. Many of them contend CRT teaches young, impressionable students that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist. But critics of HB 324 and other such legislation adopted across the nation argue that it’s important that children learn hard truths about American racism and that, historically, the nation has been imperfect in its treatment of Blacks and other people of color. HB 324 included 13 concepts teachers would be prohibited from “promoting” in North Carolina classrooms. The concepts that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and that an “individual, solely by


virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” were among the prohibited topics. Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill. He said the debate about CRT distracted lawmakers from the serious work of supporting educators and students during a global pandemic that has challenged educators and students. The legislature should be “focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning, and investing in our public schools,” Cooper said in a statement. “Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.” Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, a Republican from Greensboro and the state’s first Black lieutenant governor, and state senate leader Phil Berger (R–30th District), who is from Rockingham, were outspoken in their opposition to CRT. “I oppose it, and I will combat it with everything that I have, because I believe the doctrine undoes the framework that produced the most successful ongoing experiment in self-government in the history of mankind,” Berger said in July as state lawmakers considered HB 324. Meanwhile, Robinson, unhappy about the State Board of Education’s adoption of new social studies standards, which he claims are infused with CRT, launched the Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students (FACTS) task force to give students, teachers, and parents a tool to report perceived cases of bias or indoctrination in public schools. Charlotte educator Justin Parmenter reviewed more than 500 of the comments submitted to the task force, however, and found many of them critical of Robinson for conducting a “shameful political witch hunt.”

Leandro lawsuit The state’s long-running school funding lawsuit emerged as a top education topic late in the year as lawmakers began budget negotiations. The big question centered on how much of $5.6 billion in new school improvement funding recommended by a private consultant over the next eight years would be included in the state’s 2021–22 budgets. The first two years of the school improvement plan call for $1.7 billion in new education dollars. The newly enacted state budget, however, funds just 53 percent of the school improvement plan this school year and falls to 43 percent next year, according to Kris Nordstrom, a

senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. (Note: Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center.) Governor Cooper said the state, with more than $6 billion in reserves, had a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to “transform and strengthen” public schools. It was not to be. Despite Superior Court judge David Lee’s order to lawmakers to fully fund the plan, the state’s Republican leadership resisted. The case is now tangled up in court after the state Court of Appeals blocked Lee’s order, ruling that the judge doesn’t have the authority to order the state to transfer $1.7 billion from its rainy-day account to fund the first two years of the eight-year school improvement plan. The appeals court ruling doesn’t impact Lee’s finding that the funding he ordered is needed to help the state meet its constitutional obligation to provide the children of the state with sound basic education. Lee had ordered several North Carolina officials, Treasurer Dale Folwell, Controller Linda Combs, and Budget Director Charles Perusse, to release state money to fund the first two years of a statewide school improvement plan that grew out of Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The school funding issue will likely be resolved by the state supreme court, which would be asked to determine whether Lee has the authority to order the legislature to fund the Leandro plan. The Leandro case began more than 25 years ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education. In 1997, the state supreme court issued a ruling, reconfirmed in 2004, which held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources. The new year will likely bring more of the same on the education front as Democrats and Republicans square off in the midterm elections. Look for more friction over CRT and face mask mandates as the Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain of the COVID-19 virus. Lawmakers will also continue contentious debates over school funding and whether Judge Lee has the authority to order the General Assembly to meet its constitutional mandate to provide North Carolina children with sound basic education. W This story was originally published online at NC Policy Watch.

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Health in the Year Ahead COVID will still dominate the news cycle, bringing with it implications for major institutions in our state, plus the Medicaid transformation rolls along, and PFAS will continue to trouble North Carolina waterways. Here’s a look ahead at 2022 from our newsroom partners at NC Health News. BY ROSE HOBAN, ANNE BLYTHE, CLARISSA DONNELLY-DEROVEN, THOMAS GOLDSMITH, TAYLOR KNOPF, AND ELIZABETH THOMPSON backtalk@indyweek.com

COVID, Omicron, and children This could be the year that the coronavirus pandemic subsides. However, as 2021 bleeds into 2022 with the Omicron COVID-19 variant sending case numbers soaring and hospitalizations on a steep incline, the new year starts out much like last year. COVID will continue to play a large role in public health care and policies shaping the state’s virus attack and potential recovery plans. It should become clear in the first couple of weeks of 2022 whether Omicron will take the same, less intense course in this country as it did in South Africa and Scotland, according to two preliminary studies. Or is there more ambiguity about the severity of illness and potential for dangerously strained health care systems caused by the variant, as an English study suggests? Kody Kinsley, who became the acting secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on January 1, will be leading the pandemic response, taking over from Mandy Cohen, the former DHHS head, who resigned from her job at the end of December to try something new. What that “something new” is will likely become clear in 2022 and reveal whether it will occur in North Carolina or elsewhere. Kinsley will be picking up the baton in the now years-long race against COVID even as testing sites are swamped in the post-holiday crush of people trying to 12

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get tested before or after gatherings. He also will be taking the lead as a push for new COVID therapies and treatments becomes stronger. The federal government has promised to make more home tests available in the weeks ahead, but whether the supply will match the demand is another unknown. And some experts say these newly available tests will come too late to avoid a flood of Omicron cases. Vaccination against COVID and booster shots are likely to be key refrains from North Carolina public health advocates in an effort to relieve the state from the throes of a virus that has shown its adaptability. Though many hoped COVID vaccines would be available early in 2022 for children ages at least six months to four years old, Pfizer announced in mid-December that further study was needed to test the efficacy of a three-dose three-microgram series before seeking authorization for emergency use. Clinical trial data suggested that two doses of the three-microgram vaccine provided a robust response of antibodies in children younger than two, but for those from two to four, the dose was likely too small to produce as strong a response as was achieved for teens and young adults. The setback could mean that vaccines for toddlers and preschool children won’t be available until at least the second quarter of the year. The number of COVID cases in children rose sharply in 2021 and as the Omicron variant moves so swiftly through unvaccinated populations, there are con-

Major the Bull

PHOTO BY JADE WILSON

cerns about long-term effects of the virus on children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The past fortnight brought more pediatric deaths from COVID than at any other time during the pandemic. Another question that will be explored as the pandemic goes on is whether children, teachers, and other school staff can safely stay in classrooms with a “test to stay” approach. As the new year starts, we will continue to track and answer these and other questions about COVID-19 and how long it will continue to menace North Carolinians in the months ahead. — Anne Blythe

Changes to the state’s largest insurance provider Everyone expected issues to crop up during the initial transition to Medicaid-managed care. Now that we’re six months into the switch, and those in charge have had some time to learn about and address the most pressing issues, NC Health News will be keeping an eye out for problems that persist, including potential billing and reimbursement issues and rate cuts.

Getting into the weeds of how these programs are administered can be dull. But when these intricate systems become harder to navigate, the people who suffer are North Carolina’s low-income residents, primarily children. NC Health News will also be keeping a close watch on the Healthy Opportunities pilot, a first-of-its-kind state initiative that aims to save money on medical spending by investing $650 million in projects to address social determinants of health, such as access to food, transportation, and housing. Finally, in their final budget document, state legislators created a combined house and senate committee on access to care and Medicaid expansion “to consider various ways in which access to health care and health insurance can be improved for North Carolinians.” The committee will start its work in the first quarter of 2022. — Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Changes to care for the “whole person” in rural communities to improve health outcomes There’s about a million and one things to dig into regarding rural health but two


in particular are integrated care clinics and traveling clinics. It’s no secret that rural areas often lack speciality providers, and sometimes even basic health clinics. Throughout the pandemic, traveling clinics have provided vaccines and COVID tests to areas that needed them. NC Health News plans to follow providers who are using this model to bring different types of primary care— such as dental and vision—to areas that lack them, such as farmworker camps. Integrated care clinics also are a creative solution to some of these healthcare-desert woes. The providers at these clinics address patient health in a holistic way, looking at the relationship between physical and mental health, and aiming to address both simultaneously. — Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

Dueling public health crises in N.C.’s prisons and jails As 2021 came to an end, two things were very clear—both the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are not going anywhere any time soon. These are two issues that disproportionately impact people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. With the Omicron variant spreading quickly in the United States, the state’s prison and jail response will be crucial to saving lives. Over 70 percent of people incarcerated in the state’s prisons are fully vaccinated, but experts have urged that it might not be enough if you were

Durham County jail

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two months ago or either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago. About 11 percent of people incarcerated in the state’s prisons had elected to get a booster as of December 14, according to the Department of Public Safety. Prison staff vaccination rates continue to lag behind those of people who are incarcerated across the country. In jails, where staff and detainees are constantly cycling in and out, it is very difficult to keep track of who is vaccinated and boosted. Jails and prisons are also dealing with the opioid epidemic. Around 85 percent of people in prison have an active substance use disorder or were incarcerated for a crime involving drugs. Still, treatment for substance use disorder is not widespread throughout the prisons and inconsistent in the state’s jails. The prisons are set to start a pilot program to expand medication-assisted treatment in some facilities. How well that works could have wide-ranging implications for how the prison system as a whole treats substance use disorders. — Elizabeth Thompson

Environmental health issues under scrutiny Water quality issues will continue to be a top concern in the coming year, as the extent of per- and polyfluoroalkyl sub-

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North Carolina General Assembly

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stances (PFAS) and other industrial pollutant contamination is becoming clearer. Both the state budget and the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill have set aside funding to address PFAS and other water contamination issues. NC Health News is looking to dig deeper into some environmental issues that have languished for, at times, generations. One of those issues is contamination in Badin Lake, a dammed reservoir on the Yadkin–Pee Dee River. In the past, industrial plants, in particular an Alcoa smelter, left the water contaminated. In December, the national organization ProPublica published detailed maps of cancer hot spots across the United States that largely affect communities of color. Some of those hot spots are in North Carolina, and NC Health News plans to dig into that data as the year progresses with the hiring of a new environmental health reporter. — Rose Hoban

The second year of the state budget biennium The General Assembly wrapped up the 2021 work session in December, making that the longest legislative session in close to three decades. In November, Republican lawmakers and Democratic governor Roy Cooper reached an agreement over a budget, which was packed with earmarks funded largely by federal COVID relief appropriations.

Part of that budget included a provision to create a select committee on Medicaid expansion, a policy move that has been at the top of Democrats’ wish lists for close to a decade. As that process ramps up in the first quarter of 2022, we’ll be keeping close tabs on lawmakers’ deliberations around the policy, which, after many years, received an endorsement from Senate leader Phil Berger (R–30th District). Even-numbered years typically have shorter legislative sessions, which traditionally have focused on revising the state budget for the second year of the biennium. But other even-numbered years have resulted in plenty of policy and spending changes. NC Health News will be back on-site at the legislature, keeping track of this process and several study committees, including studies of algal blooms, PFAS contamination in the state’s waterways, and direct care worker salaries, and covering what’s likely to be a fight over the coming year’s state budget now that most of those federal COVID dollars have been appropriated. — Rose Hoban

The state’s response to mental health services in crisis There is no doubt that the pandemic sparked a mental health crisis as people suffered through immeasurable stress and loss. North Carolina hospital leaders


have sounded the alarm, saying we’re in a “behavioral health emergency” as increasing numbers of patients are coming to emergency departments in distress. Experts say the peak of a mental health crisis hits about six months after a disaster such as a hurricane, but this one is different. The COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on for nearly two years, presenting new challenges, and it isn’t over yet. We expect the pandemic-induced mental health crisis to outlive the virus and to be a key focus of our reporting in the coming year, particularly for young people. In the fall, Mental Health America’s 2021 report ranked North Carolina 45th overall for pediatric mental health care. Then, in early December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a 50-page advisory calling urgent attention to the issue of adolescent mental health. The document came with a note, saying that surgeon general advisories are “reserved for significant public health challenges that need the nation’s immediate awareness and action.” Murthy noted that the number of high schoolers reporting feelings of loneliness and sadness increased 40 percent between 2009 and 2019, before the pandemic even began. He described the many factors that contribute to this problem, including social media and slow progress on issues such as racial justice, climate change, and gun violence. “All of that was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered young peoples’ experiences at home, at school, and in the community,” Murthy wrote. “The pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.” In June 2021, it was estimated that more than 140,000 children across the country had lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to COVID-19, according to the advisory. It also cites emergency department data that shows higher rates of youth suicide attempts—particularly among young women—during the pandemic. “It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” Murthy wrote. The surgeon general’s advisory lists several different action steps for health professionals, educators, community members, families, and young people to improve the mental health of adoles-

cents, which range from raising awareness to improving access to care. — Taylor Knopf Raleigh's Community Bookstore

Challenges, opportunities with the growing share of older Tar Heels in 2022 Older people continue to compose an increasing sector of North Carolina’s population—16.7 percent, or almost one out every six Tar Heels, according to census estimates. Way back in 2010, the share of North Carolinians 65 and older was 12.9 percent. That means older people’s piece of the population pie grew by about 30 percent in a little more than a decade. It also means that the state will need many more independent living apartments, caregivers, geriatricians, and home health workers, and it will benefit from the brain trust and energy apparent in many “seniors.” In 2021 those numbers surely played into what’s being called the most positive legislative session in years for older people—including some recurring state funding for sources of help like Meals on Wheels and transportation. But as always, there’s competition for official attention and the money that comes along with it, given additional needs such as school funding, continuing COVID response, and a recent increase in disaster relief. As executive director of the North Carolina Coalition on Aging, Heather Burkhardt keeps up with news and reports from government agencies, nonprofit groups, and businesses with a stake in the health and welfare of older people. Advocates have said that a key to better outcomes for this group lies in better wages and treatment for the state’s direct care workers, a focus of the coalition that should show results in 2022. “It’s been a cornerstone of the work we’ve done over this last year,” Burkhardt said December 3 at a statewide gathering of leaders in aging. “We really focused our energies on wages and collaborations, not just within aging but across all service industries.” Members will push in 2022 for a state study on the aging boom to look comprehensively at the generation’s specific problems, solutions, and opportunities, some of which may not reveal themselves at first glance. “The state needs a road map of how to address the implications of an aging baby boomer population,” Burkhardt said. — Thomas Goldsmith W

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FO O D & D R I N K Photo caption goes here ILLUSTRATION BY ANNIE MAYNARD

Crowdsourced review behemoths like Google and Yelp put power in the hands of the consumer. In age of pandemic frustration, who really wins? BY LENA GELLER lgeller@indyweek.com

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elp’s logo is called “The Burst.” According to the website of the crowdsourced-reviews platform, The Burst is modeled after the symbols that appear over the heads of cartoon characters during a moment of discovery and is intended to emulate the “surge of energy” that Yelpers feel after “sharing their latest adventure” in a review. If you’re unfamiliar with the logo, imagine five pieces of solid red candy corn arranged in a circle with tapered ends pointed toward the center. It looks a bit like the radioactive symbol with two extra propellers, or a star that lacks integrity. 16

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Like The Burst, the population of Planet Yelp is fragmented and five-pronged. It’s also hierarchical. Yelp executives sit at the top. Reviewers lounge comfortably underneath. The next section, the largest, comprises people who use Yelp only as a search engine to find businesses. Business owners are the next grade down. Their employees occupy the lowest bracket. Both Yelp and Google reviews are hugely influential on the well-being of small businesses. Studies show that a one-star increase in a Yelp rating generally leads to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue. Eighty-six percent of Americans consult online reviews before selecting a local

business, and about 48 percent of people won’t consider patronizing a business with fewer than four stars. These days, online reviews loom larger than ever. Since the onset of the pandemic, consumers have been interacting with reviews—searching, reading, and applying filters— at a rate 50 percent higher than they were pre-COVID. If you Google a restaurant’s name, the restaurant’s Yelp page will likely be sequenced above its actual website. Owners cannot opt out of either Google or Yelp listings. I’ve frequented three of Yelp’s five factions. I started near the top, as a reviewer, and worked my way to the bottom. I published my first review when I was fourteen. It was for The Cupcake Bar—a bakery that stood in the center of downtown Durham before closing in 2018—and it was scathing. “Come here if you’re looking for a dry, disappointing end to your night,” it read. “I left wishing that one of Pizzeria Toro’s fires had traveled a bit farther to the left.” Four Yelpers voted the review as “Funny,” pushing it near the top of the bakery’s “Recommended Reviews” section. While my subsequent reviews weren’t nearly as cruel, they were rarely for the benefit of anyone but myself. As an aspiring food journalist, I used the platform to exercise my youthful writing chops—the lobster tail pastry at Carlo’s Bakery wasn’t “good,” it was “a blissful eruption of cold crème pâtissière”—and as a way to get published. But I never wrote one-star reviews with the intent of being constructive; I wrote them to exert agency. In 2016, after three years of writing reviews, I entered phase two of my Yelp career: I created a business page for my custom cake and dessert company, Lena’s Lunchbox. The year after, when I moved to Washington, D.C., for college, a few things happened: First, I started paying an exorbitant monthly amount for Yelp ads, which pushed my page slightly up the list of local bakeries. Then, less than one month after I started school, The Washington Post caught wind of my business and ran a story on the front page of the Metro section, leading to a barrage of orders and more reviews. I never received anything below five stars—I imagine this was because people felt weird about trashing the business of a teenage girl—but I was spooked by the prospect. My page had so few reviews that even one or two unhappy customers could tank my standing. I had a new understanding of the impact of online reviews, from an owner’s perspective, and began to write fewer. In 2019, I shut down Lena’s Lunchbox—I wanted to focus on school; also, I lost most of my sense of taste during a nightmare wisdom tooth extraction that fried the nerve endings in my tongue—and started working as a hostess at Founding Farmers, an upscale-casual American eatery located a few blocks away from the White House that happens to be the most-booked restaurant


in the nation and the third most reviewed on Yelp. Pre-pandemic, Founding Farmers received around 1,500 reviews per month on review platforms. Performance feedback was swift and I developed a bad habit of checking Yelp immediately after I clocked out, scanning reviews from guests to see if I’d been mentioned. Most of the time, I was commended, but sometimes reviewers would describe me as moody and aloof. One customer complained that “there were no smiles or joy” on my face; that it looked like I was “in prison.” He was probably right: The shifts were chaotic, packed, and grueling, and the customers, often VIPs or political bigwigs, were entitled and difficult to please. I was also being sexually assaulted by two of my coworkers. After starting that job, I stopped Yelping entirely. While one bad review can’t do much to harm the average rating of a large-scale operation like Founding Farmers, it can be devastating—and sometimes job-ending— for employees. Service workers are frequently the subjects of customers’ indignation, even though most things we take the blame for are institutional and out of our control. And if you’re under the impression that people are softening their online reviews because of pandemic-era sympathy for restaurants and their workers, buckle up.

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n September 2020, after a six-month hiatus, The New York Times announced that restaurant critic Pete Wells would resume writing reviews again, with a caveat: until the pandemic ended, he wouldn’t pair them with a star rating. Other publications have taken similar approaches: Eater recently declared that it’s abolishing its star system for good, with chief critic Ryan Sutton writing that the past year has led him to wonder “whether we’re better off permanently dropping this blunt instrument that doesn’t evolve as dynamically as our language or our values.” But where professional critics are loosening their review systems, customers are picking up the slack. A few months ago, one of my coworkers at Bull City Burger and Brewery—where I work part-time as a server and bartender—was identified in a parenthetical of a Google review: “Had a horrible experience. The staff was rude (green hair).” I kept the post to myself when I saw it, but a manager brought it up the next week while we were discussing the validity of online reviews. One of the owners of the restaurant had seen the review and asked

Drinks from Cocoa Cinnamon

PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

him about it, my manager said, and he’d realized the author was a customer whom my green-haired coworker, Bounty Gibson, had politely asked to put on a mask. The owner and manager decided there was no point in telling Gibson about the review, but Gibson still came across it a few weeks later. “I felt like shit for like two straight days,” Gibson says. “It definitely could’ve endangered my job, if it weren’t such a close working environment like this is. They could’ve been like, ‘You got a Yelp review, we know it’s you, you’re fired.’” While learning that the reviewer was an antimasker contextualized the encounter, Gibson says the possibility of backlash can discourage them from confronting customers about pandemic protocols. In a more recent attempt, they tell me, they handed a paper mask to a barefaced customer who proceeded to strap it onto the back of his head, the way Guy Fieri wears sunglasses when indoors. “It’s always been that every time some-

one comes in without a mask, I have to decide whether to endure abuse or risk my own health,” Gibson says. “Now there’s this added layer of maybe getting called out on the internet.” Two months ago, Luna Rotisserie in Carrboro made headlines when it immortalized a particularly absurd onestar Google review on a T-shirt. The reviewer, who describes Luna as “full of satanic activity,” exudes antimasker energy: “As free breathing humans,” the reviewer writes, “we were discriminated against, the wait staff refused to serve our laughing, smiling faces.” Given Luna’s success in turning a negative review into positive publicity, the restaurant likely isn’t fighting to get it removed. But if it wanted to, it would be nearly impossible: because the review doesn’t explicitly use the word “mask,” it doesn’t meet Google’s standards for prohibited political commentary. In Durham, Alley Twenty Six owner

“If you’re under the impression that people are softening their online reviews because of pandemicera sympathy for restaurants and their workers, buckle up.”

Shannon Healy says he experienced a smattering of polarized, nonlocal reviews after news coverage of his restaurant’s vaccine requirement. “Because they heard on the news that Alley Twenty Six requires proof of vaccination before entry, a dozen people are allowed to give me one-star reviews, having never entered the place,” Healy says. “And because they don’t explicitly say what they have an issue with, none of the sites will take it down.” Healy says he sometimes tries to bait people into admitting their antivax status by replying to one-star reviews with requests for additional feedback. Then, maybe, he can flag a review and get it removed. “But this is, like, eight steps now,” Healy says. “Instead of working on running my restaurant, we’re spending our time on defense.” It would be hard for a restaurant to not be on the defense: star ratings carry real power. And unlike professional restaurant critics or guidebooks, which adhere to definitive, public assessment criteria for ratings, Yelpers make their own rules. The arbitrariness of the system is perhaps most concisely depicted in the South Park episode where Gerald, a self-proclaimed “Yelp critic,” hunches over a keyboard. “My experience at Applebee’s was sublime and my treatment near that of a gladiator most decorated,” he writes. “But the street parking wasn’t that great. Two and a half stars.” While browsing Yelp listings for Triangle restaurants, I came across scores of reviews from customers who attributed their negative ratings to a single, highly subjective factor. On the Yelp page for the Durham sandwich shop Toast, for example, one reviewer admitted he hadn’t tried the food, interacted with the staff, or even set foot in the restaurant. “I arrived at 3:03,” the review reads. “They close at 3. No leniency.” One star. Cocoa Cinnamon co-owner Leon Grodski de Barrera notes that while “most people who read reviews can read between the lines,” the majority of users only look at the star rating. “For the first time ever, in the history of our company, our Yelp reviews [have dropped] to four stars,” Grodski de Barrera says. “And it’s because of pandemic things. It’s because of our mask policy, it’s because of our autogratuity—things we put in place to protect our team have brought our score down. To me, that’s wrong.” A recent New York Times feature attributed the decline of civility in public and “transactional” spaces, from airINDYweek.com

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“It’s always been that every time someone comes in without a mask, I have to decide whether to endure abuse or risk my own health. Now there’s this added layer of maybe getting called out on the internet.” plane outbursts to grocery store meltdowns, in part to an ingrained expectation for a “frictionless economy”— the pre-pandemic experience of obtaining “whatever you wanted, the moment you wanted it”—during an era of supply chain shortages, understaffed businesses, and corporate policies that give customers few actionable outlets for frustration. The result: a nation that feels bereft of agency, and service workers and business owners that bear the brunt of its anger. “I don’t know what happened to people, but they just got real nasty,” says Scott Crawford, owner of several Raleigh-area restaurants, including Jolie and Crawford & Son. Detailing the attitude shift customers have had during the pandemic, he adds, “If I spoke to guests this way, I would be on the 6:00 news. If I spoke to my employees this way it would be considered harassment.” For customers reluctant to express ire in person, online reviews are the next outlet. Seth Gross—who co-owns Bull City Burger, Pompieri Pizza, and Bull City Solera and Taproom—says online reviews seem to be making customers increasingly averse to voicing their issues in person. “We have created a culture where, when someone asks, ‘Are you enjoying everything?’ people are conditioned to say, ‘Everything is great,’ and then they will go sit in their car and write a negative review,” Gross says, adding that he doesn’t understand what customers think they will gain from leaving a critical review online. “It has to be that your only motivation is to be hurtful,” Gross says. “Because if you say something while you’re in the restaurant, we will do everything we can to give you a good experience.” As a whole, the digital realm is conducive to a culture of outrage. It affords people a shield of anonymity so they can, in Healy’s words, “get their bile out.” When people spout off on social networks like Twitter or Reddit, they may feel some catharsis but not neces18

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COPA owners Elizabeth Turnbull and Roberto Copa Matos sarily a sense of control; complaints usually just vanish into the void. This is the draw—and the danger—of online review sites. They present not only a place to rant but an opportunity for influence. The most entrenched aspects of the restaurant industry are usually the easiest to overlook, and the most problematic. Tipping perpetuates discrimination, sexual harassment, and pay disparities between front- and back-of-house employees. Shift drinks often encourage substance abuse as a coping mechanism for high-stress environments. And the online review system, despite being less than 20 years old, is already deeply entrenched in the industry. I know this partially because of how long it took me to question it. When I was on the receiving end of mean-spirited reviews at Founding Farmers, I placed blame on myself, the customers, and even my coworkers. Until recently, I never considered that the problem was the platform. Customers can be cruel. But the real monsters are Yelp and Google, the nasty middlemen.

“T

his is a really hard thing to go on the record about with the press,” Elizabeth Turnbull tells me, “because I have zero proof. I have nothing but anecdotal experience.” Turnbull and her husband own COPA, a Cuban restaurant in downtown Durham. Before COPA opened in 2018, they spent seven years at the helm of Old Havana Sandwich Shop, located just down the street from their current business. Before hesitantly raising the phenomenon she has zero proof of, Turnbull was telling me about an incident that

PHOTO BY CAITLIN PENNA

occurred last March, where COPA received a torrent of negative online reviews intended for a Cincinnati restaurant and dance hall called Copa Lounge. That month, the owner of Copa Lounge had allegedly refused entry to a group of Black women. After a video describing the encounter went viral on TikTok, impassioned supporters across the country took to Yelp and Google to flood the lounge with one-star reviews. But because review sites list establishments in order of their geographic proximity, most of the people who lived closer to North Carolina than Ohio ended up mistakenly posting reviews for the Durham COPA. Just like that, during a time when they needed business most, COPA’s ratings dropped. Mistaken identity cases of this severity happen somewhat often; a similar incident happened to Proper Brick Oven restaurant in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago. Despite this, Google doesn’t provide clear guidance on the steps owners should take to get reviews removed in mistaken identity situations. It took Turnbull two months to get the “mistaken identity” reviews taken down from Google. The Google marketing team rejected her initial request—there was no way she could prove that the reviews weren’t intended for her restaurant, they said—so she researched alternative recourses, eventually realizing she needed to open a legal inquiry case. After she sent links to news articles about the incident to the legal department, Google agreed to remove the reviews. When it did, though, it also eliminated every review that had been posted for the restaurant in the previous six weeks. “Through the publicity, we’d had good legitimate reviews from customers who said, ‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to leave


a review, let me go do that,’” Turnbull says. Dealing with Yelp was more straightforward: she flagged the reviews for discriminatory activity and Yelp promptly removed them. When Turnbull mentioned that Yelp’s support in “this particular case” was “ironic,” I asked her what she meant. This was when she described an odd experience with Yelp. Anytime COPA’s star rating on Yelp starts to approach four and a half stars, Turnbull says, the company (which makes around 95 percent of its revenue through advertising, according to its quarterly letters to shareholders) starts to bombard her with calls and emails asking her to join its paid advertising program. When she declines, more negative reviews appear on COPA’s page and the star rating drops back down. Soon after, sales reps will contact her again, reminding her she would have a higher rating if she bought ads and heavily implying that the one- and twostar reviews could be suppressed. The same thing happened, Turnbull says, when she owned Old Havana. “I can’t prove a connection, but it sure feels like what they’re really asking me to do is pay them protection money,” Turnbull says. “And when I say I don’t need to be protected, then suddenly I do.” Turnbull’s hesitancy in speaking about this is understandable: Yelp is one of the largest tech companies in the world, and COPA is a small, independent restaurant trying to pay its staff a living wage during a pandemic. But Turnbull is far from the first restaurant owner to make this claim. The belief is so widespread that one of the FAQs on Yelp’s site is literally “Does Yelp extort small businesses?” Online, most owners’ accounts are nearly identical to Turnbull’s. They have varying opinions on where the negative reviews may be coming from: some claim that Yelp is crafting and uploading its own fake onestar reviews, while others think the company is pushing existing negative reviews to the tops of their pages and shifting positive reviews to lurk in the “Not Recommended” section—a sort of subduction zone where star ratings, while visible, are not factored into a business’s overall rating, and an area that users can only access by clicking on an inconspicuous link at the bottom of the page. For more than a decade, businesses have been accusing Yelp, which was founded in 2004, of extorting advertising money through review manipulation. A handful have sued. Yelp always wins. A federal appeals court in San Francisco dismissed one such lawsuit in 2014,

In Carrboro, Luna Rotissiere ownership turned an irate one-star review from an anti-masker into a t-shirt. PHOTO BY SKYLER JAY concluding that even if the plaintiff was able to prove Yelp’s usage of the alleged tactics, it would still be legal: the ruling states that “it is not unlawful for Yelp to post and sequence the reviews,” and “as Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining.” Despite the court’s decision that Yelp is essentially free to squeeze small businesses for cash, the company remains staunch in its denial of using any Mafia-esque tactics. In an official statement to the INDY, Yelp writes that “there has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to alter reviews or ratings, and we treat reviews for advertisers and non-advertisers exactly the same—regardless of when a business starts, stops or declines to advertise on Yelp.” Because business owners can’t opt out of having a Yelp page (Yelp chalks this up to the First Amendment), there seems to be only one way to evade the company’s advertising requests—and its alleged manipulation of reviews. Owners have the option to leave their Yelp page “unclaimed.” This means that they won’t have the ability to add their own photos, update their hours, or reply

to reviews. It also means that sales reps won’t pester them to buy ads. If a business is new and unclaimed, sales reps will occasionally contact the owner to try to convince them of the value of Yelp’s free tools—that is, to convince them to claim their page so Yelp can start asking for money—but eventually, according to seasoned “unclaimed” owners in the industry, they’ll stop calling. But forgoing the ability to reply to reviews is no small sacrifice. On a platform where the power dynamic is skewed hugely in favor of the customer, responding to reviews is the only way that owners can retain some locus of control. Seth Gross generally only replies to positive reviews—“Reward kindness,” he says— but he adds that having the option to respond is crucial in the event that someone posts a review to the wrong business. “One time someone said, ‘Your chicken wings were terrible,’ and I said, well, we don’t sell chicken wings, so I think you might have the wrong restaurant.” While researching, I noticed that the Yelp page for Carrboro’s Venable was unclaimed, so I called the restaurant’s owner, Andrew Moore, to confirm that they didn’t try to sell him ads. “They never call me,” Moore says, “and I would never buy an ad on Yelp. I hate Yelp.”

When I ask if Moore’s decision to remain unclaimed was strategic, he tells me he has no idea what “claiming” his business even means. Regarding customer feedback, Moore says he primarily pays attention to the comment cards that customers fill out at the end of the meal. “It really cuts down on our critical reviews,” Moore says. “If they fill out a comment card, they feel like they can address the issue that they had without needing to go online.” For owners who feel powerless over their online review pages, comment cards could be a good preventative measure to take. “There’s something so strange about how cruel people can get when they’re typing into a computer versus handwriting something,” Moore says. In terms of improving the online review system itself, Grodski de Barrera suggests that review sites should have a system for rating reviewers, in the way that Uber drivers can rate their passengers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that restaurant owners would be assigning stars to customers, he says, but there could be a peer-review system—or review sites could create an algorithm to detect serial onestar reviewers and adjust their credibility rating accordingly. When I ask Turnbull if she has thoughts on how to rectify the system, she’s skeptical that platforms can be trusted to implement positive change. “This is where regulation and legislation need to step in,” Turnbull says. “In the same way that they’re starting to hold certain social media outlets accountable for the fake news that they let circulate and propagate, reviews are in a similar fashion.” Every restaurant owner quoted in this article noted that most of the feedback they receive is positive, constructive, and appreciated. But, across the board, these owners—all of whom, I should note, boast fairly high Yelp ratings—told me they would opt out of having a Yelp page if they could, despite its assistance in boosting their online visibility. This makes sense, as Yelp gives business owners two options: they can leave their page unclaimed and, in turn, relinquish control of their side of the story, or they can claim their page and allegedly be subjected to review manipulation if they don’t pay up. “I don’t get to opt out,” Turnbull says. “I don’t get to say, ‘My business is not open for review.’ So if you’re going to eliminate the choice for me and use my business and my name and my branding as a way to profit, because it’s driving traffic to your site, the very least you should do is provide some kind of accountability for truth.” W INDYweek.com

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SC R E E N

SATELLITE SCREEN FILM PROGRAM | SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

a/perture cinema | Winston-Salem | Friday, Jan. 28 – Sunday, Jan. 30 | aperturecinema.com

Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNDANCE

Screen Out Winston-Salem’s arthouse theater, a/perture cinema, is one of Sundance Film Festival’s seven satellite screening locations. BY BYRON WOODS arts@indyweek.com

L

ocal cinephiles now have two options if they want to catch a public screening of films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. They can catch a cross-country jet to Park City, forking over serious coin for food, accommodations, and festival passes. Or they can just hop on I-85 and drive to WinstonSalem instead. The famous international film festival has chosen a/perture cinema, an art-house theater in the Twin City, as one of seven satellite screening sites across the country. The downtown movie house, known for its eclectic mix of independent, foreign, and documentary films, will show eight of the festival’s feature films and three shorts during the last weekend of Sundance, January 28–30. The festival began its satellite site program in 2021 to reach new audiences and strengthen partnerships with independent cinemas, film festivals, and arts organizations threatened during the COVID pandemic. Sundance screened films in 31 cities outside its Utah headquarters last year. With theaters reopening across the country over the past year, the festival scaled its satellite program back, selecting seven venues out of the 107 that applied from 40 states. According to Brenda Coughlin, Sundance’s director of engagement and advocacy, the festival sought out 20

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independently owned and accessible theaters “committed to vibrant independent film, excellence in community programming and outreach, and to inclusion and equity.” In particular, Sundance looked for partners “who demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion in their leadership, staff, and programming.” “We really try hard to represent diversity in our programming,” says Lawren Desai, a/perture’s executive director and curator. “We bring films to screen by underrepresented filmmakers and women directors, and world cinema is a significant part of our programming.” Foreign films from over 50 countries made up roughly half of the 251 films the cinema showed virtually and in-house in 2020; a third of its films were directed by women. That year, a/perture also screened 95 new documentaries and 47 movies with directors who were Black, Indigenous, or people of color. According to Coughlin, Sundance “saw in a/perture all the qualities we were looking for. They are a contributor to a vibrant regional cinema culture and we’re thrilled to be working with them.” “As best we can, we try to do for film what Sundance does obviously on a much higher level,” notes Desai. “These are the kinds of films we show all year. If people like them, they don’t just have to come for Sundance.”

Individual tickets for the North Carolina shows, while available, will be less expensive than those available in Utah, at just $15 a pop. And those tickets will be sold à la carte; a/perture won’t be aggregating shows in passes for the festival weekend. “Since there’s such a limited number of tickets, we wanted to make them as accessible as possible,” Desai says. And there’s the rub for interested theatergoers, since the four-screen complex in Winston-Salem is a decidedly intimate venue. Its largest rooms seat 80 patrons. Each of the eight Sundance features will be screened once over the festival weekend. And tickets go on sale to members of the cinema on January 5, one day before they’re available to the general public. (Interested theatergoers can buy qualifying memberships online, starting at $35 for young adults, seniors, teachers, and the military.) Desai is particularly interested in screening Sirens, a Lebanese documentary about the Middle East’s first all-women heavy metal band, Slaves to Sirens, and the band members’ struggles to pursue their dreams amid the ongoing unrest and destruction in Beirut. “Heavy metal isn’t for everybody, but you’re really pulled in from the beginning of the film,” Desai says. “There’s an LGBTQ+ story line, and the women—you’re just drawn to them.” She also thinks the dark comedy Emergency has its finger on a current cultural pulse point. In it, Black and Latino college students have to weigh the potential risks to their own well-being if they call the police when they encounter a crisis. “As we know, a college campus is not a bubble,” Desai says. “The issues still present themselves.” Hawaiian filmmaker Alika Tengan’s Every Day in Kaimukī “really shows the indie side of Sundance,” Desai notes. “It’s clearly a Hawaiian’s story, when films generally tell stories about Hawai’i from the point of view of people going there from outside.” Among other features, Alice, a drama inspired by accounts of Black Americans kept in peonage well after the end of slavery, stars Keke Palmer, Common, and Jonny Lee Miller. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, with Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, satirizes for-profit religion in the South. And the Brazilian drama Marte Um (Mars One) depicts the struggles of a lower-middle-class Black family after a farright extremist is elected president of Brazil. The satellite site will also screen two other documentaries. Free Chol Soo Lee focuses on a Korean immigrant’s wrongful murder conviction during a 1973 gang war in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and La Guerra Civil examines the cultural divide between Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans during the 1990s boxing rivalry between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez. Finally, three shorts—Kicking the Clouds, Chilly and Milly, and ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (Udeyonv – What They’ve Been Taught)—will round out the festival weekend in Winston-Salem. W


CULTURE CALENDAR Please check with local venues for their COVID-19 protocols.

art

Staff-Guided Tour: Conflict Photography by Chris Hondros Free. Thu, Jan. 6, 6 p.m. The Gregg Museum of Art, Raleigh.

Jim McKeon: Five Points Featured Artist Jan. 7–Feb. 5, various times or by appointment. 5 Points Gallery, Durham.

music Scott Bouldin Fri, Jan. 7, 7 p.m. Vecino Brewing Co., Carrboro. PineCone presents Carolina Gospel Jubilee with The Glorifying Vines Sisters and More $22+. Fri, Jan. 7, 7:30 p.m. Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh.

Parallel/Shift Jan. 16–Mar. 3, various times or by appointment. Horace Williams House, Chapel Hill.

in your inbox every Friday

The Glorifying Vines Sister perform at Duke Energy Center on Friday, January 7 PHOTO COURTESY OF MUSIC MAKERS FOUNDATION

Mega Colossus/ Children of the Reptile/Swineherd $10. Fri, Jan. 7, 8 p.m. Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro.

Dealing Stan— Performing the Music of Steely Dan $15+. Sat, Jan. 8, 9 p.m. Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro.

Loamlands/ Aquarian Devils $10. Fri, Jan. 7, 8 p.m. The Pinhook, Durham.

The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle $19+. Sun, Jan. 9, 3 p.m. The Carolina Theatre, Durham.

Machine Girl $14+. Sat, Jan. 8, 8 p.m. Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro.

LOCAL ARTS, MUSIC, FOOD, ETC.

Tell Me Something Good: A Tribute to Chaka Khan $15+. Sun, Jan. 9, 6 p.m. Hayti Heritage Center, Durham

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P U Z Z L ES

ALL RE A LTHC T HEA ERS GE K R WO

FF O % 10 ON ALKLS

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BOO

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© Puzzles by Pappocom

There is really only one rule to Sudoku: Fill in the game board so that the numbers 1 through 9 occur exactly once in each row, column, and 3x3 box. The numbers can appear in any order and diagonals are not considered. Your initial game board will consist of several numbers that are already placed. Those numbers cannot be changed. Your goal is to fill in the empty squares following the simple rule above.

If you just can’t wait, check out the current week’s answer key at www.indyweek.com, and click “puzzle pages.” Best of luck, and have fun! www.sudoku.com solution to last week’s puzzle

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