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Bowman Gray racing season is officially canceled

The increase in the number of coronavirus cases has led to the cancellation of racing this season at Bowman Gray Stadium. Above, a scene from Bowman Gray in 2017.

Bowman Gray Stadium’s racing season has been officially canceled.

Officials with Winston-Salem Speedway Inc., which runs the NASCAR-sanctioned series, sent an email to drivers Thursday.

Series promoter Gray Garrison said the increase in the number of coronavirus cases made the decision the right one.

“With the latest guidelines by the governor, we likely wouldn’t be able to get to full capacity for quite a while,” Garrison said of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase Two orders that cap outside gatherings at 25 people.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday reported an additional 2,160 cases of the virus, up from 1,782 on Wednesday. The single-day high is 2,462, which was set Saturday. The Forsyth County Department of Public Health reported 96 new cases for a total of at least 3,946 since mid-March. The number of COVID-19 deaths remained at 40.

“Our plan is to make that 72nd season the best yet, so that’s what we are hoping for,” Garrison said. “It’s unfortunate this is where we are as a country, but we are praying and hoping that this thing turns around and we can all be safe again.”

Now that both of Bowman Gray Stadium’s tenants, racing and Winston-Salem State football, have canceled their seasons, the city of Winston-Salem will take a significant hit financially. According to Ben Rowe, an assistant city manager, no racing season means a loss of $72,640.

Rent that Winston-Salem Racing Inc. pays to the city was waived.

Garrison said other losses would be felt in and around Bowman Gray Stadium.

“I don’t know what the numbers would be, but when you think of restaurants and other businesses in the city that’s a big hit,” Garrison said. “It’s no telling what the loss is economically for all of those businesses. You look at a place like Kermit’s Hot Dog House (on Thomasville Road a mile away), and they are slammed on Saturday nights. So there’s definitely a ripple effect of us not racing at all.”

An email to Bowman Gray Stadium fans said that an extended Phase Two prompted the cancellation.

“We believe it is highly unlikely that Governor Cooper will significantly relax these restrictions in August or even September,” the email read.

Driver Jason Myers said he wasn’t surprised that the season is canceled.

“I was kind of like everybody else in that we had a little hope we could run out there this year,” Myers said. “But we kind of figured it wasn’t going to happen, so we just have to ride this thing out as best that we can.”

Myers said he still finds it hard to not get up on summer Saturday mornings and head to Bowman Gray Stadium.

“It’s still strange to me because we’ve been going to the track for as long as I can remember,” Myers said.

Chase Robertson, 15, a third-generation driver at the historic track following his grandfather, Gerald, and his father, Mike, was hoping to have a successful second season. He raced as a 14-year-old last season and held his own.

“Being that it is my second season, it’s very unfortunate,” said Robertson, a rising sophomore at Oak Grove High School. “We had such a good season in 2019, I was really looking forward to building off of that. We will stay focused and be ready for 2021.”

While Robertson is one of the youngest drivers at the stadium, one of the oldest is Randy Butner, 60, of Pfafftown.

“We kind of all knew this was coming and it’s a shame for everybody involved,” Butner said. “There’s such a tradition out there, and it’s what we do on the weekends. I just hope that we can all go out there next April and this is all behind us.”

Butner said that while other sports are playing without fans, doing likewise at Bowman Gray wouldn’t have been worthwhile.

“The fans have to be there, or that place doesn’t exist,” Butner said. “It’s why we all do it and it’s why racing there is so much fun. I couldn’t imagine racing with even partial crowds or whatever could have been worked out. It’s called ‘The Madhouse’ for a reason, and that just doesn’t work if there aren’t any fans.”

Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough denies accusations of cover-up in John Neville's death. Nurse turns herself in a week after being charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville's death.

Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough denied Thursday accusations that he covered up the death of John Elliott Neville and said the primary reason he didn’t say anything publicly about Neville’s death for seven months was because Neville’s family requested it.

“There’s no blood on our hands and we’re not trying to hide anything,” Kimbrough said, referencing a banner protesters held Wednesday as they marched to the sheriff’s office to demand answers from Kimbrough and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill. “If I was trying to cover up something, I would have done the investigation in-house.”

Protesters, including groups such as Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition, held an all-day occupy event and intend to do similar events every day until they get answers about Neville’s death. They were out in Bailey Park on Thursday, with some making calls to the prosecutors’ office and the sheriff’s office. Kimbrough said Thursday that he has no problem meeting with the protesters.

He also said the office has changed policies regarding the duty to intervene and starting on Aug. 1, 50 detention officers, including members of the jail’s special response team, will undergo medical training. He said that the medical provider, Wellpath (formerly Correct Care Solutions), is one of the only corporations that provide medical care for jails. Wellpath has been sued several times over deaths of inmates at the Forsyth County Jail, including two men who died in May 2017.

The day after Neville died on Dec. 4, 2019, Kimbrough said he requested an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, which turned over its findings to O’Neill in April. After the autopsy report was finalized in July, O’Neill held a news conference, announcing that five detention officers and a nurse would be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity and the Winston-Salem NAACP are adding their voices to calls for more transparency, issuing a statement Thursday.

“The obligation of law enforcement officers to ‘protect and serve’ does not end when a person is detained or restrained,” the two organizations said in a statement. “We call for an independent agency to conduct a full evaluation of current practices at the county jail, adequate training for our officers, an end to discrimination and bias, an end to excessive use of force, and accountability and transparency for all law enforcement, including correctional officers.”

The two groups are holding a news conference at 11 a.m. today at NAACP’s chapter office on Oak Ridge Drive. Kimbrough said he plans to be there.

On Wednesday morning, the nurse, Michelle Heughins, 44, turned herself in to the Forsyth County Jail and was released on a $15,000 unsecured bond. Her next court date is July 30. The detention officers — Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Woodley Jr., 26; and Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36 — have been released on a $15,000 unsecured bond and are due in court on July 23.

Kernersville police arrested Neville, 56, on Dec. 1, 2019, based on an outstanding warrant for assaulting a female out of Guilford County. Neville was placed at the Forsyth County Jail on a $2,000 secured bond, but at 3:26 a.m. on Dec. 2, Neville suffered a seizure and fell from his top bunk bed.

For nearly an hour, Neville struggled with detention officers. The officers placed him in a hog-tie position, with his hands behind his back and his legs folded up to his buttocks. Neville pleaded with the jailers while he was restrained, saying, “Please,” Let me go,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Help me.” Jailers tried to remove the handcuffs, but the key broke about 2.5 minutes after he was first placed in the prone position, and it would take a key and two different bolt cutters before the handcuffs could come off, according to an autopsy report. In that time, Neville stopped moving and speaking entirely, the autopsy report said.

After jail staff stripped him out of his jail jumpsuit and a nurse checked him, they left Neville in the cell, but came back in after the nurse saw that he wasn’t breathing or moving. The officers did CPR and he was revived several times at the jail and at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where Neville died on Dec. 4, 2019. The autopsy report said Neville died from a brain injury caused when his heart stopped beating. He asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded up in a hog-tie position.

The sheriff’s office first publicly acknowledged Neville’s death on June 26 after the Winston-Salem Journal asked questions. Video of the incident has not been released, and O’Neill said he would oppose a public release, at least for now. The News & Observer, which also has reported on Neville’s death, has petitioned for its release, and a hearing is scheduled for July 29 in Forsyth Superior Court. Kimbrough said that Neville’s bond was unsecured when he was transported to the hospital so that the hospital and the family would have the ability to make decisions about Neville’s care. Unsecuring the bond meant that Neville was technically not in the jail’s custody when he died.

Kimbrough defended his decision not to inform the public about Neville’s death in December.

“They were the ones hurting,” he said about Neville’s family. The family and the family’s attorneys, Michael Grace and Chris Clifton, asked Kimbrough to keep Neville’s death quiet. “I had an obligation to that family as well.”

But he insisted on Thursday that he was not covering anything up because he contacted the SBI and requested an investigation. Asked whether he would do the same thing if it involved a homicide of a Forsyth County resident, Kimbrough said that would be different because a local law-enforcement agency would be investigating.

In cases where a sheriff’s deputy has shot someone, the sheriff’s office has released information immediately, and typically, the SBI investigates the circumstances surrounding the shooting. But Kimbrough said Neville’s death is different because he didn’t know the cause of death until the day before O’Neill had his news conference.

“The SBI was investigating and the family and the lawyers made a request to allow the investigation (to go forward),” Kimbrough said. He said that based on that request and the SBI investigation, he decided not to disclose the death publicly.

He also said that he would handle things the same way if he had to do it all over again.

“If I went against the family’s request and what the lawyers asked of me, I would have been damned if I did that,” he said. “They would have been highly upset. The family was hurting, not the public. It was about the family.”

Sara Hines of Winston-Salem declined to comment on behalf of the local protest groups on Kimbrough’s specific statements.

“If Bobby Kimbrough wants to know how we feel about his statements, he knows where we are,” Hines said. ‘If he wants to talk to us, we are here.”

About 30 protesters again gathered Thursday at Bailey Park near the intersection of Fourth Street and Patterson Avenue. For nearly 30 minutes, Hines recited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that he delivered on Aug. 28, 1963 during the March on Washington, D.C.

Modified driver Danny Bohn (65) passes James Civali (79) with John Smith (53) following closely on the front stretch in the 100-lap Modified race of Saturday night, Aug. 5, 2017, at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. Bohn placed first, Civali second, and Smith third. Smith was disqualified due to failing a post-race inspection on his car, making Jason Myers (4) take his place. (Winston-Salem Journal/Allison Lee Isley) 20170806w_spt_bowmangray

School reopening decisions up for a vote today. Here's what board members are thinking.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education will face a momentous decision at its meeting today — will schools reopen with a mix of in-person and remote learning, as Superintendent Angela Hairston is recommending, or will it all be online?

In advance of the 1 p.m. meeting, the Journal contacted members of the school board about how they expect to vote and what will guide their decision. Under Plan B, students from kindergarten through eighth grade will attend school daily and high school students will attend virtually, with at least one day a month set aside for in-person socialization with classmates and teachers. In Plan C, all students would learn virtually.

Board members Barbara Burke, Leah Crowley, Deanna Kaplan, Dana Caudill Jones and Marilyn Parker did not return emails and calls.

Here’s how the other board members responded:

Andrea Bramer

Bramer has said in past meetings that she will not send her two children back to school.

“Personally, I’m a solid Plan C, but I’m only one vote. We have more deaths now than we did when we closed school on March 14. If there are more deaths, why are we opening? I’m for Plan C for one quarter, and then, we’ll evaluate.”

Bramer said she believes that remote learning should go more smoothly this fall as teachers and students acquaint themselves with technology. There is a push for local schools to be more virtual, meaning that teachers would engage more with students in real time, rather than post assignments on a website.

“With videos and by talking to each other, they’ll pick up on sound cues and visual cues that they were not getting. There’s going to be some interaction that was not there before. They’ll be able to create an interactive environment.”

Some of Bramer’s concerns about Plan B are the changes to the classroom environment, such as no toys for kindergarten students and masks for young students. Such an environment, she said, sounds “cold and sterile.”

“My eighth-grader does not want the Virtual Academy. She wants interaction, but I’m not comfortable as a parent, knowing that is a risk.”

Lida Calvert Hayes

“I’m going for the safety of the kids, whichever plan I feel makes these kids most safe.”

She declined to say specifically which plan best fulfills that concern.

“I want to hear more. I want to hear a general discussion on everything. There are 55,000 kids in our system. It’s a huge responsibility as a school board member. I’m concerned about the virus. I have kids who are in healthcare... I have grandchildren in the school system, and I’m concerned about their safety and every child who walks in the door. And the high schoolers, we need to do better for them. They don’t need to be left out of the situation.

“The thing that makes it so hard is that this is constantly changing. You feel like you’re making a decision on something and the next day it has changed. It’s hard to know exactly what is going to happen from day to day.

“We can do better things if we have more resources, but unfortunately, here we are with the most precious things we have in the world, our kids, and we’re strapped with resources that are going elsewhere.”

Calvert Hayes said her inbox has been jammed with emails, with some coming from high school students.

“I think it doesn’t matter what age you are in school. You need guidance from adults, and that does concern me.”

Elisabeth Motsinger

A physician assistant with a degree in bioethics from Wake Forest University, Motsinger said opening schools for in-person learning while COVID-19 cases are rising is dangerous for staff and students.

“One of the reasons that people don’t worry about COVID for kids is that we’ve kept populations of kids away from each other so we don’t know what happens when big numbers of children are brought together.”

Motsinger said she understands the argument for Plan B as it relates to children who need the structure of school for their physical and mental health.

“I’m deeply committed to the well-being of children, but the school system alone cannot provide all of the needs of the children in Forsyth County. That’s a community effort and we need the whole community to be participants in that.”

Motsinger is advocating for community centers and churches to provide some basic care for children during virtual learning hours.

“Our job is to protect our children and our staff from truly horrific outcomes, first and foremost.”

Malishai Woodbury

In an interview on Wednesday, Woodbury, the board’s chairwoman, declined to say how she will vote, saying that above all, she is committed to providing children access to a sound, basic education, something she swore to do in her oath to the office. She said she is also considering the safety of staff members and how the board’s decision affects the community.

“I don’t want to prioritize but I must because I took an oath to put children first, but I have not decided. I need to ask some questions.”

Winston-Salem now requires masks in all buildings owned or leased by the city

The city of Winston-Salem is requiring people who enter city-owned or city-leased buildings to wear face coverings in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Mayor Allen Joines mandated the face coverings in a declaration that took effect at 5 p.m. Thursday.

“It is my desire to curtail the spread of COVID-19 within the city of Winston-Salem by requiring the use of face coverings by persons accessing buildings and enclosed structures owned or leased by the city of Winston-Salem,” Joines said in the declaration.

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health reported Thursday the county had 96 new cases for a total of at least 3,946 since mid-March. The number of COVID-19 deaths remained at 40 people.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order on June 24 mandated a statewide mask requirement but didn’t cover local city buildings, and Cooper strongly encouraged local governments to adopt similar policies that require face coverings, the city declaration said.

Joines’ declaration regarding masks “formalizes, in writing, the city’s prior practice of advising citizens and others to wear a mask when accessing city-owned and city-leased facilities,” City Attorney Angela Carmon said in an email.

The city’s face covering requirement doesn’t apply to city-owned or leased open-air facilities such as basketball shelters, swimming pools, picnic shelters and the Reynolds Park golf course.

“While a face covering will not be required for such open-air facilities, individuals are strong encouraged to adhere to (the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) 6-foot social distancing recommendation,” the city’s declaration said.

The face-covering requirement exempts people whose religious beliefs prevent them from a wearing a face covering, people who cannot wear a face covering because of medical or behavioral condition or disability, children under 11 years old, a person who is eating or drinking, someone who is strenuously exercising, a person who is communicating with someone who is hearing impaired and someone who is complying with the directions of law enforcement officers.

The city wants residents to voluntarily comply with the face covering requirement.

People who enter a city building and refuse to put on a mask could be instructed to leave the building by city officials.

Refusal to leave a city building will allow police officers to enforce trespassing laws, the city said in its declaration.

Statewide, North Carolina experienced its second highest daily increase in COVID-19 cases with 2,160 new cases reported Thursday, the state Department of Health and Human Services said.

The highest daily case total was 2,462 on Saturday. The overall total is at 93,426 statewide.

The number of North Carolinians requiring hospitalization dropped from a record high of 1,142 on Wednesday to 1,134 as of 11:30 a.m. Thursday. COVID-19 related deaths rose by 20 to 1,588.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, have cited increases in overall cases, deaths and hospitalizations as reasons for pausing the state’s second phase of reopening for a second time Tuesday — this time until at least Aug. 7.

The Cooper administration is monitoring five public-health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.

Cohen has expressed concern recently about the lengthening time it is taking to get COVID-19 test results back from non-hospital venues.

She said DHHS will begin providing today hospitalization and intensive care unit usage by regions.

Forsyth updates

As of Thursday, 2,508 Forsyth residents are counted as recovered for an active case count of 1,398. At least 11 cases in Forsyth are linked to staff members at the Forsyth County Jail, but no inmates had tested positive as of Tuesday.

Meanwhile, DHHS lists Guilford County with 3,877 cases, up 37 from Wednesday, and with three additional deaths to 131.

There have been at least 15,016 cases in the 14-county Triad and Northwest North Carolina region with 279 reported deaths.

The state’s positive testing rate has hovered between 9% and 10% since at least mid-May, but was at 8% as of 11:30 a.m. Thursday. There have been 1.31 million North Carolinians tested.

Cohen has said she would feel more comfortable with a 5% positive rate.

The latest testing numbers for Forsyth came Tuesday, saying there had been 3,662 positive results out of 31,720 tests countywide for an 11.5% positive rate.

Cohen has said the data is showing increasing community spread of the virus by individuals “when they feel completely fine and they don’t know they have it” and by workers in more high-risk jobs, such as meat-processing facilities and long-term care facilities.