21st Century Plague
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” — Albert Camus, The Plague
Time is cruelly elastic. When March began, Joe Biden was celebrating the resurgence of his presidential campaign after a win in the South Carolina primary. When March began, downtown Atlanta was packed with marathon runners, while the Hawks were, reliably, scraping the bottom of the Eastern conference. When March began, we were going to restaurants, and to school, and to soccer games and concerts and plays and funerals and weddings. When March began, we were going to work. When March began, dozens of Georgians were walking around with absolutely no idea that within a matter of days they would be dead from a virus that had traveled across the world only to alight on them. How many more of us will step into its crosshairs?
Each day feels like a month. So much news is compressed into 24 hours—thousands more infected, ICUs at capacity, unemployment rates reaching heights not seen since the Great Depression, our 401ks decimated—that our brains seize up. Grocery store visits are planned with the precision of a wartime raid. Kids’ days are ostensibly scheduled—Reading! Enrichment! FaceTime with the teacher!—but how do you homeschool and telework at the same time? You don’t. The screens you once cursed are now free childcare.
That’s, of course, if we even can work from home. Some of us can’t. Many of us have been laid off or furloughed as restaurants close their doors, as nonprofits’ funding dries up, as fitness studios go dark. Others of us who have been deemed “essential”—nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery-store workers, mail carriers, truck drivers, delivery people—come home late at night and shed our clothes outside so as not to bring the virus near our loved ones.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was guaranteed to happen. But to us? Now? We spoke with our neighbors about the world we’ve left behind, and the one that awaits. Interviews edited for length and clarity. Tap on each person’s name to read their full interview.
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Dr. Michelle Au | anesthesiologist at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital
I first started hearing about the virus after Christmas. But the news still felt like something distant. It was in China, so you’re watching with this detached interest. I am in the unusual position of being a Chinese American physician with a public-health degree who also happens to be running for office [Au is a Democratic candidate for the 48th state Senate district, which incorporates parts of Fulton and Gwinnett counties]. I was talking with voters in the Chinese community who said that I should be speaking out on the issue more. I probably should have paid more attention. I should have taken it more seriously.
Dr. Meria Carstarphen | superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools
Right after Valentine’s Day, one of my friends was going to Venice, Italy. While my friend was there, they shut down Carnival [due to coronavirus]. That was my reality check. I said to our team, “We need to prepare for the day when we have to shut down the district.” There were moments where I felt I was pushing a wet noodle up a mountain. As things started escalating, we had to make decisions. I said, “We have to prepare a contingency plan that starts with the worst-case scenario.”
Devon Clinkscales | senior at Booker T. Washington High School
This year was my senior season of high school baseball, my last year. I was really excited about going out strong and getting ready for travel ball. It was my best opportunity to get some scouting.
Hugh Acheson | owner of Empire State South in Midtown and 5 & 10 in Athens and operator of By George in the Candler Hotel
The real canary in the coal mine was [in early March], reading about restaurants in Shanghai. Shanghai to Wuhan [where the virus is said to have originated] is an immense amount of distance. [Restaurants in Shanghai] were saying that they didn’t know how long they could stay open. Their sales were down 80 to 90 percent, and it was just a ghost town. We’re not an industry with deep pockets. Everybody’s like, “Oh, Hugh, you’ve been on TV. You must be rich.” I’m like, “You have no idea how this works, do you?”
Kathy Weeks Lowery | self-employed travel agent in Marietta
[A client] was supposed to leave on March 28 out of Tokyo for a 12-day cruise. That was her son’s college graduation gift. Holland America held tight. They said if she cancels now, she’s losing 50 percent of her money. That was January 24. Travel insurance doesn’t cover a pandemic. Since then, they canceled the cruise and gave her the rest of the money. Cruise lines are offering as much as 225 percent of your refund toward a future booking. For me, it’s been everything. I had 117 kids going to D.C. for a field trip, 10 people going to the Grove Park Inn, a busload going to Mary Mac’s and Hamilton. All canceled. I only get paid after clients travel. I figure this year’s income will be 20 percent of last year’s.
Amy Phuong | vice president of government relations for the Atlanta Hawks
My wedding was set for March 28. We had everything planned. I even had a final walkthrough at the venue on March 4. We’d invited 200 people.
Mike Gallagher | co-owner of Brick Store Pub and Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Good Word Brewing in Duluth, and partial owner of Kimball House. Together, the four restaurants employ approximately 200 people.
2019 was a tough year. We had opened [Good Word Brewing]. The contractor had gone belly up when we opened. We lost our chef and sous-chef. We had a lot of money invested in Duluth. But 2020 was starting great. We’d put down a sizeable amount of money on a redo of Brick Store.
On February 26, after seven years running the pop-up restaurant Eat Me Speak Me, Jarrett Stieber opened his first permanent restaurant. The build-out took months.
Jarrett Stieber | chef-owner of Little Bear in Summerhill
We had inspectors tell us we had to change things, and we covered the cost. So, like every restaurant, we ran way over budget. We opened with $285 in our checking account after buying products for the first week and just prayed that we were busy. We, thankfully, were.
On March 2, five days after Little Bear opened, Governor Brian Kemp announced the first two confirmed cases of coronavirus in Georgia—two members of the same household in Fulton County. Nationwide, only 90 cases had been confirmed, six of whom were fatalities. “Georgians should remain calm,” Kemp said.
Stieber We had one customer who said that she couldn’t believe that a place like Little Bear was here, that it reminded her of restaurants in San Francisco. That’s exactly what I had in my head when I planned this restaurant, that small-capacity hole-in-the-wall that basically is a neighborhood restaurant in terms of how it feels but has food as good as any high-end restaurant. We were hitting our stride.
Clinkscales On March 2, we were evicted from our apartment, but they didn’t change the locks. If they’d changed the locks, we’d have nowhere to go. Our stuff would be out on the street. My dad and my mother had a couple of disagreements on how to maintain. I have an older sister who has an apartment in a project, so my mother, my other sister, and my niece all moved in with her. But I stayed with my dad. He didn’t finish high school. He needs someone. He doesn’t understand how things work. I love my dad, and I have to be with him.
Belisa Urbina | founder/executive director of Ser Familia, a nonprofit that provides services to Latino families
My husband’s family is from Spain, so we knew what was going on there. We knew what was going on in other places. I knew that if this was happening in all these other countries, it was going to happen to us because we are connected. Flights are coming in and out. People are moving around.
Shawn Ware | owner of Vibe Ride cycle studios
When the news about the coronavirus first came out, I was taking a break at home, between working at the Westside studio in the morning and Grant Park in the afternoon. I thought, Okay, well, this is just a flu. I’ve always been a gym rat, and I’ve always joked that I’ve been a germophobe since I was in the womb. I’m always washing my hands, using hand sanitizer. I thought, So, now you all are jumping on board for what I’ve been doing my whole life? But then, as the hours and days went on, I realized this was serious.
On Friday, March 6, President Trump, wearing khakis, a windbreaker, and a Keep America Great baseball cap, visited the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for a photo op and press conference, where he referenced his “natural ability” at understanding the complexities of virology and addressed the sluggish pace of testing for the virus. What he said wasn’t even a complete sentence: “As of right now, and yesterday, anybody who needs a test—and that’s the important thing.” While other countries were ramping up their tests to include even those who were asymptomatic—results which indicate who is contagious and who is not—the United States was (and as of late March remained) unequipped to test any but those suffering the most extreme symptoms. By Monday, March 9, the number of Georgians who’d tested positive for the virus had climbed to six, with 11 more presumed positive. Kemp announced that space at Hard Labor Creek State Park in east Georgia would be outfitted to accept COVID-19 patients who needed to be isolated.
Phuong Even that week [of March 9], I started out feeling like, Okay, our wedding is so soon there’s no way it’s going to be impacted. Even though Italy at that time had made a turn for the worse, [my fiance] Kerry’s family is from Spain, and we felt good because they weren’t impacted the way Italy was. Then, we got to Wednesday, and that’s when it dramatically switched. That’s when the Hawks had their final game. That was the same evening that Trump instituted the travel ban from Europe. Kerry’s family would not be able to make it.
Carstarphen The day when I said to my fellow superintendents that I’m considering closing the district even though we don’t have any cases—that was a bit of a shock. Even to myself. I work with children. So, the idea that I would even put on the table this notion that they might not have a prom, they might not be able to play for the state championship, they might not be able to get closure after 12 years of public school, that their moment gets snatched away from them? It’s sobering how your decision can change the direction of people’s lives.
Dock Hollingsworth | senior pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church
Wednesday, March 11, was a turning point. We were here for the Wednesday night services. There was still a lot of levity. A 94-year-old man came up to me and said, “Boy, I was relieved that this is targeting people 60 to 80 since it’s been so long since I was 80.” By Thursday morning we were in a whole different mode. I was in a peer group with other Atlanta pastors. Everyone was asking, “What measures are you taking?”
Keisha Lance Bottoms | mayor of Atlanta
I went to Sam’s Club on Thursday. A woman asked me what I was doing there. “The same thing you’re doing.” I have four kids at home. My husband makes grocery runs on his way home from work. But I knew we needed to stock up with a family of six. I’m now cooking three meals a day. But my personal adjustment pales in comparison to what’s happening. People are dying.
Urbina We provide services to about 4,500 people. The services that we provide are very difficult to find. To give you an idea, there are 700,000 Latinos in metro Atlanta but there are less than 70 counselors who are fully licensed that can speak Spanish. There are four psychologists in the state of Georgia who can speak Spanish, and there are five psychiatrists who can speak Spanish. Latino children have twice the chance of having anxiety and depression compared to other teens. Our Latina girls, almost 20 percent of them attempt suicide.
Joey Camp | cook at Waffle House in Canton who also drives a party bus part-time
I started getting pneumonia [in early March]. I felt like I was drowning. The chills had gotten so bad that I could not keep my teeth from chattering. If my teeth weren’t chattering, I was coughing. [On March 12,] I went to the emergency room. They did all these tests—a CT scan with contrast, x-rays, everything. They were like, You got really bad pneumonia. We’re going to put you in a room and monitor you for a few days. Well, I was in there for probably nine hours when they hung the isolation box on my door. Which is where they keep all these gloves, smocks, and masks that everybody has to put on before they’re allowed into the room. I got a little nervous.
Phuong It hit me Friday night. We’d been planning so long, and now, our wedding is not going to happen. It was emotional.
Dr. Laurence Busse | medical director, critical care, Emory Johns Creek Hospital
On March 13, it was profound the amount of people coming into the ER. That was a scary day, and we all finished that day thinking, What are we in for?
Dr. Jessica Nave | hospital medicine, Emory University Hospital
I was hoping that, by early April, we’d peak. But now, my projection is we’ll peak at the end of April. And that’s still optimistic. It’s just the numbers. If you look at Seattle and New York, they’re still going. We didn’t start getting cases until the second week of March. We have to have a solid month of getting hit really hard before we peak.
Marshall Rancifer | homeless advocate and relief worker
There are 4,000 homeless people out there on the streets. Youth and adults. Homeless people share everything: food, clothes, hygiene products, blunts, crack pipes, needles sometimes. I brought a bunch of crack pipes to them so they wouldn’t share pipes. Some don’t know there is a virus outbreak in the city. They don’t have access to social media or the news. If you’re not in a shelter, you’re walking around in suspended animation all day. I saw people starting to light cigarettes and pass them around. I knocked the cigarettes out of their hands. I said, “You can’t share cigarettes, can’t share food, don’t touch nobody, don’t shake nobody’s hand. Don’t hug nobody.” Had to explain to the mothers in a park on Proctor Street what they can and can’t do. We’re not just educating the homeless; we are educating poor people and marginalized folks. They just don’t know.
The weekend of March 14-15 was surreal. Social media and television were talking about nothing else, and school districts across the state, including Atlanta Public Schools, were announcing or had just begun indefinite closures. But for many Atlantans, life went on as normal. Bars were full. Restaurants were open. The BeltLine was packed. At Brick Store in Decatur, the owners decided to go ahead with a planned St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which included a short parade to the bar, scheduled for Saturday. Their decision, announced on the bar’s Facebook page the day before, brought out the knives. “You are encouraging people to make a very selfish decision,” wrote one of the more restrained commenters. “Public health providers are telling us to behave AS IF WE HAVE THE VIRUS, because many of us likely do.”
Gallagher Calling it a “parade” is a stretch, because there were about 15 to 25 people. There were more people congregated in front of retail stores than there were in the parade. But we did it, and we had our event. We removed some tables. We put some tables spread out outside. We removed some barstools. I think people were clustering with whom they felt safe, their own household member or a family member, and then they spread out otherwise. It wasn’t six feet apart in the whole place, for sure. But our staff was militant about sanitizing bartops, tabletops, stools, chairs, menus in between their reuse, faucets. I got a lot of feedback from staff and guests about how meaningful it was to them and how they viewed it as a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak moment in time. So we certainly got a lot of great feedback. But the bashing on social media was unfortunate and unnecessary, quite frankly.
Carstarphen I always believed we would be here at mitigation—not prevention, not containment. Mitigation was probably the only way we’d go given the spirit of our country, given we’re a democracy, given that people love their personal freedoms and their individual decision-making.
Stieber This is the first time that social media and the general public have been able to kind of force people’s hands in a business sense, beyond just what is recommended from a health standpoint. We live in an era where people are so polarized and proselytizing of everything from behind their screens that whether you want to stay open right now, to fight for your business, you don’t really have much of a choice because of the stigma associated with doing so.
As new restrictions kept restaurants from opening to guests, they pivoted to takeout operations. They started GoFundMe accounts for furloughed staff. At Brick Store, owners reduced their menu to soups and sandwiches. Donations to the “soup kitchen”—meant to compensate workers—were encouraged, but if you couldn’t pay, you could still grab a bag.
Acheson My real worry is for all the people that I promised to provide for and can’t. That’s very hard, because I want on my tombstone to be remembered as a good employer, and a good human, and a good dad. The people who are going to get hit worst by this are undocumented. It’s not like we have a huge number of them on the payroll, but across the country, there are. They can’t get unemployment. They pay taxes through payrolls, but they don’t get taxes back. They are screwed. But we’re all screwed. Everybody’s like, Well, we’ll recover. No. Fifty percent of the restaurants that just shut down across this country will never reopen.
Gallagher Most restaurants are lucky to have two full weeks’ worth of financial runway, and employees, probably even less. A lot of these guys are paycheck-to-paycheck. We are taking the money from the GoFundMe, the money from the gift cards, and any additional monies that have been given, and we’re divvying them up among staff on this upcoming payroll. We’re going to try to find an hourly threshold. For instance, if you worked 24 hours or less, you’ll get this pay rate. If you’re 25 or more, you’ll get that pay rate. We felt that was the most equitable, least cumbersome way to do it. I’ll be honest, it was tough. Do you pay more because they make more? Do you pay more because they need more? Do you pay more because they worked with you longer?
Acheson I’m really happy that people are buying gift certificates. If we sell $2,000 of to-go food today, I’ll be impressed. That does not equate to being able to pay $16,000 in rent next month that Empire State owes and payroll costs of $44,000 every two weeks.
Urbina Our community works in hospitality, restaurants, construction. Those are the first industries that are affected. We have already had clients who have lost their jobs. They know that they’re probably not going to be able to pay rent at the beginning of April.
While most coronavirus infections don’t require hospitalization, roughly 15 percent do. Usually, though not always, the person needing hospitalization is elderly or immunocompromised. The infection ravages the lungs, leading often to pneumonia. Patients can’t get enough oxygen on their own. Some require a ventilator, a machine that augments the patient’s respiration through forced exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Busse I’m critical care. So, when patients get to me, they’re in dire straits. The typical thing that’s seen down in the emergency room is fever, some increased work of breathing, some hypoxia [low levels of oxygen in tissue], and some malaise or body aches. Those folks who have, let’s say, a little bit of increased work of breathing or need some oxygen would be admitted to have supportive care while they get through their illness. But if they have a higher degree of oxygen needs or they’re in septic shock or they’re in kidney failure, then they come to me. And those folks can be exquisitely ill, anywhere from just needing a few extra liters of oxygen to having multiorgan failure and needing a full bevy of life support.
Nave Sometimes illness is difficult to define by objective measures. We’ll get a call from the ER physician saying, “I think this patient needs to get admitted.” I’m looking at their chart and saying, “Well, they’re not hypoxic, they’re fine.” They’ll say, “Just come and lay your eyes on them.” So, I do, and it’s, “Oh yeah, this person is not going to do well.” They have a look about them. Their breathing pattern is abnormal. They’re using more accessory muscles.
Au The act of intubating a COVID-19 patient is essentially the highest-risk procedure you can do. As you’re putting in that tube and they’re breathing out through this channel you’re putting in, it gives an opportunity for the virus to be in the air. Usually, it’s in droplets. Aerosolized virus can float around. It’s one of the most infectious potential procedures you can do on a COVID patient. The person who is best and most senior and experienced at doing intubations should do it. They take the least amount of time possible. Put in the tube, quick, hook up the ventilator, and minimize exposure to everyone.
Nave Some of our sickest patients have been in their late 20s to late 30s and otherwise healthy. We don’t know why.
Camp On Saturday [March 13], they tested me for COVID-19, and I got positive affirmation on Monday. How in the world did I get this? I have not been to Italy, I haven’t been to China, I haven’t been around people, to my knowledge, that have been to those places. I live a very boring life. When they finally told me on Monday, they also released me from the hospital to self-quarantine. The house I was living in had an infant in it. I didn’t want to take the chance of getting that infant sick. So, I was like, “I need options.”
Camp was brought to Hard Labor Creek State Park and put in a camper to recuperate until he was no longer contagious. He was there for six days.
Camp It had a nice bed in it. There were cookies. The state health officials were super helpful. I asked them to go on a grocery run because a diabetic cannot live on chips and cookies. And they went and got me some bananas, some apples, some cucumbers—all this stuff for me to snack on. I offered to pay for some of the stuff, and they wouldn’t have it. They paid for my medicine. They got me a new blood-sugar meter. The first few days were rough. The coughing was the worst part at that point. I had stopped having chills, I had stopped having a fever, but I was still coughing my brains out. It was like starting a car. Just whoop, whoop, whoop, just constant. And it just slowly went away. One day, I was coughing every three or four minutes; the next day, it was every half hour; the next day, it was every hour. And by the time I was done, I was only coughing very, very rarely, when I got a tickle in the back of my throat. It wasn’t even in my lungs anymore.
Au We know that some of the sick are going to be our colleagues. We know that the more we are going to engage, the more people are going to be sick. Over the weekend, I started sleeping in the guest room in the basement because it’s separate from the rest of the house. I have my own bathroom because I don’t want to share a bathroom with anyone. I’m very meticulous about hygiene now—I mean, I always was because I work in the hospital—but now it’s like, shower and change into clean clothes before I leave the hospital. And then, I shower and change clothes again [once I’m home].
Rancifer I wasn’t scared before, but I’m scared now. My father and mother always taught me not to run away from trouble—run toward it, because you can be the person who can change something or save someone’s life. But once this gets out of hand, I’m not going to run toward someone that can kill me. I’m 63. I fall under the category of major at-risk. After I meet with big groups of folks, I skim down to my skivvies. I wear two pairs of gloves. When I get in the car I take my clothes off and throw them on the ground. I take the top pair of gloves off and put them in a disposable Ziploc bag. Then, I take the sanitized clothes out, get dressed, and then move on back home.
Au Yesterday I cried talking to a high-school friend. When you’re at home, because the kids are there, you want to be like, Everything’s cool. It is so disruptive for them, so you put on the cheerful face. And at work, since I’m an attending physician, you want to put forth that “everything’s under control.” You get accustomed to trying to keep other people calm. But talking to someone that I’ve known before this, it was just an unguarded moment. What if I get sick? [My husband and I are] rewriting our wills right now. He’s a doctor, too. One of us has to stay well.
Clinkscales My mom is worrying about what we’re going to do. She is part of a housecleaning business, but people haven’t been allowing them into their homes because of precautions. My dad works in building services for a hotel, and his income has been dropping. Because of the pandemic, baseball has been canceled, five games in. Colleges aren’t recruiting. Some schools aren’t even accepting students.
Ware I spent most of the day today on the phone with our creditors and sending emails to landlords and to the people we lease bikes from, and they’re like, We get it. They’ve been extremely understanding, but it is a very, very scary time. One of our creditors said, We can defer for three months but we’ll still collect interest. Our largest creditor, Wells Fargo, is deferring payments with no late fees and no interest and no reporting to our credit bureau. But a community bank is going to charge us interest. They said, That’s just what we have to do. When we sent the email that we were going to suspend everyone’s membership, we had 35 to 40 people call and say, Don’t cancel. Don’t suspend our accounts. We want to continue to pay because we know you are hit hard, and this is our gym. We want to help and support you as much as we can. Some of these people have been members since the beginning. They’re not clients or strangers; they opened the doors with us. That has been so amazing.
Acheson I had $26 in my checking account last week, last week, before this all happened. I’m borrowing personal funds from people I know to pay payroll. Small business is being abandoned. It’s been abandoned for a long time in this country. Nobody has any inkling about how much hurt this is going to do. Lobbyists are on the Hill right now getting every meeting that they want to bail out Delta Air Lines yet again, and the auto industry is going to get bailed out. One in 10 people in the States work for the hospitality industry. Nobody’s bailing us out. We bail out all the wrong people in this country, consistently, over and over again. These are the same people who don’t want Medicare for All, yet they want a socialist handout when they make bad decisions in business, and they go broke.
When the coronavirus closed Atlanta Public Schools, the district implemented a massive effort to continue offering free meals to its 52,416 students. Working with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, APS offers a bag of free groceries every Monday at four locations around town. The district hosts an additional giveaway on Tuesdays and is offering meal service at 10 sites around town, including delivery of meals via the school bus system.
Carstarphen Our goal as of yesterday was to be at 40,000 meals on any given day in a school district. We let everyone eat. As food supplies diminish or are late, and as staff continue to self-quarantine and find other challenges trying to come to work every day, we’ll have staffing shortages.
Bottoms I drove to my mother’s house, and she stood outside my car. I hadn’t seen my mother in a few weeks. Which isn’t normal. My grandmother would quote the Bible: “Be anxious for nothing.” You hear from people all the time, “This, too, shall pass.” I had to write that on the wall in the mayor’s office to remind myself. We’re going to be alright. When I need to take a breath and clear my mind, I’ll go and sort some shoes. This too shall pass.
Camp I work in the service industry. Half of my income has been wiped out by this. The party bus industry is on hiatus because all the bars are shut down, proms were shut down, all of that. That’s killing my income. I still have bills. Part of me feels like the government shouldn’t be telling businesses to close their doors. I feel like that should be a case-by-case basis.
Busse The preparation [by the federal government] has been poor, but I didn’t really expect it not to be. Do you plan for the worst-case scenario? Or do you put resources elsewhere? So, the response in general has not been great. And I think that’s sort of what I expected. And frankly, if I was in that position, I’m not sure I would’ve done it differently. I mean, it’s really hard to plan for something like this. I’ve never had this in my lifetime. And I’ve been here for Ebola, for H1N1 influenza, and I was here for the first SARS illness back in 2003. We’ve seen these things erupt on a regional level but never really become a global pandemic. This is new in our generation.
Urbina My nightmare is that one of my employees gets sick, and I have to close my office, and our families have nowhere to go. At the moment, what we need most are donations or gift cards. One donor asked if she could bring baby formula, and I said yes, that would be fantastic. We have another person who asked if they could bring baskets of food. Yes, whatever you think you can do. We are very grateful.
Busse When we run out of ventilators, that’s not something that we can just pull out of the closet. So, we’re relying on and hoping for support from the government to get more ventilators. We’re relying on and hoping for support from industry to get us more resources. We’re using what we have now, and once that’s it, once we’re out, we’re going to have to get creative. We don’t have enough N95 masks. We don’t have enough personal protective equipment. We’re using what we have, and we are hoping that we don’t get the virus.
Nave We’ve started rationing our personal protective equipment. We’re trying to be very, very smart about when to use it and on which patients. It’s kept under lock and key because there’s panic even in the healthcare system when something like this hits. People start hoarding.
Ware My husband is 60 and has heart disease, so we want to make sure he is extra-protected. I’m a breast-cancer survivor. We live in a condo downtown. We are in and out of the parking garage, touching that door all the time. Those are the things we have to be conscious about. We’re here, and we’re in the house more now, obviously. But it’s fine, it’s family time. We’ve got a puzzle. I got me some wine.
Brad Levenberg | rabbi at Temple Sinai
So many of us have relied on physical gatherings to provide comfort when we’re going through difficult times. When it’s joyous, we gather to celebrate. In the days after 9/11, we gathered in homes and apartments to watch the news. Now, this kind of support is all being challenged. We need to find other ways.
Busse Right now we’re not seeing the normal volume of patients that show up needing care at the hospital. And is that because patients are being more careful and taking their medicine and having telehealth visits with their primary-care doctors? Are they no longer using the emergency room as a sort of a primary-care outlet? And it makes me think: Is this what healthcare could be if we were sort of using the system appropriately? Now, of course, the pessimist in me worries that when this is all said and done, we’re going to look at mortality and morbidity of people that were not infected with COVID-19 and we’re going to see that go up.
Nave Italy had so many cases that all presented at once that it overwhelmed their entire system, and they’re having to choose who’s going to live and who’s going to die. They’re looking at two patients who are actively dying and there’s one ventilator, and they’re saying “You get it.” That’s probably the most horrific experience for a physician. I can’t even imagine. That’s what we don’t want.
Hollingsworth We are in the holy season of Lent right now. It’s already designed to be a season of introspection and asking the big questions. So, in many ways, this makes the Lenten questions more real and more pressing because the ground is shaky under people. But personally the ground doesn’t feel that shaky to me. Because I have a different kind of existential hope. We may see people turning to the church to ask, Are there answers there that perhaps I’ve been making fun of for a long time? This is an opportunity to live inside a hope that is not built on markets or how many widgets you can sell.
Carstarphen This is going to have a huge and disproportionate impact on black and brown and poor children. When you’re in a city that has the label of being the most unequal city in America when it comes to income disparity, and you’re working with people who are already fragile and incredibly strained in the healthiest of economies, this is crushing. If you’re wealthy, you can still get the access to the things you need for your family. Our kids weren’t getting that at the outset. It took a pandemic to wake up some people to know that we have to support our marginalized brothers and sisters.
Clinkscales I don’t have money to pay for college on my own. Scholarships have been taken away. I’ve been thinking about starting a business. I have always wanted to own a sports bar. Now, I’m scared about what I’m going to do after I graduate. I was working hard, doing extracurricular activities, filling out scholarship applications, playing sports, trying to do something better for my family. And it all got taken away because of the virus.
Urbina This pandemic has proved how connected we are. Nobody can say that they have not been touched by this. I am Latina, but if something is happening to my friends in the black community, it’s my problem. I have to do something about it because they’re my people. With everything that’s happening to the Asian community, I feel so sad that people have made them feel they are to blame for the situation, which, they’re not. We need everybody’s help so we can survive. There will be repercussions from this that we can’t even imagine right now. Do whatever you can, but just do something.
Stieber My main focus is keeping the business open any way I possibly can, which right now means switching to a to-go–only format this week. But we have to do what we have to do, and I’m doing whatever I can to make sure I pay my staff and keep their jobs. If you have the ability to stay home and still get paid and you’re willing to share with the people who need it, then do so. Just stop posting the same memes—pony up and do something legitimate to help.
Nave I don’t leave my house a lot [when I’m not at the hospital]. We have gone to the grocery store. We do not bring our children. I keep hand sanitizer in my purse. The second I get in my car, I sanitize my hands again. We bring all the groceries in, unload then, and immediately wipe every single food item down: boxes, milk jugs, whatever. Then, we take a wipe and retrace our entire steps from the time we entered the house—every doorknob, every baby gate, every counter.
Levenberg This is a time when you don’t have to put your life on the line to be a hero. You’re a hero when you pay your yard people to not show up. When you pay your cleaning people to stay home. When you send a gift card to teachers who are learning new tools to teach your children. These are all heroic measures.
Bottoms I’ve been thinking a lot about the Holocaust and the diary of Anne Frank, how people’s lives changed and they had to go in hiding. When I think about that, this is a minor inconvenience. There are people who live across the globe with disease and war. I’m in a house with AC and a backyard and two dogs who get to run around and play. It’s made me grateful just about the little things—going to a restaurant, getting your nails done, going to the store. These conveniences we take for granted our entire lives. It’s given me a perspective, another layer of empathy.
Nave This is a different infectious agent than we have ever seen in most of our lifetimes. This truly is unprecedented. I was at Emory when we dealt with Ebola. Ebola’s mortality is way worse than this, and it’s very infectious—but not as infectious as this. This is crazy: You start with one city in China, and now, the whole world has it because we’re so interconnected. This is such an unprecedented infectious agent that we have to be more diligent and cautious, even at the cost of some of the economics of this country. Because how do you put value on a life?
Hollingsworth If we have a death in our community, it’s our practice to come together as a community and tell stories. We can’t do that now. But an interment can’t wait. The staff here will do small graveside services, and we’ll encourage families to push a memorial service into the future.
Gallagher [My wife and I have] had some difficult talks about the greater good. Is it being available as a soup kitchen, or selling food to raise money for our staff, or closing down and keeping the highest level of social distancing? This morning, she shared a dream she had where she was in the grocery store and there was too many people and she could see the hand sanitizer and she couldn’t get to it.
Levenberg I hope we have a renewed understanding of those who are more marginalized than we are and of the privileges we claim by default. Maybe that sense will be awakened in people who are seeing that there are a lot of people who are worse off, who are seeing that they’ve milked the existing system for their families at the expense of others.
Phuong We thought, What’s preventing us from still getting married? So, we went to the courthouse to get our marriage license the last day the court was open. We pulled up the weather app to look for a date when it wasn’t going to rain. Bill Bolling [the founder of Atlanta Community Food Bank, who was officiating] said, “Pick a pretty spot.” I thought, let’s just pick our neighborhood park, Cabbagetown Park. When Kerry and I first started dating, it was midway between our houses. My parents came, my sister. We had to keep it under 10. We had hand sanitizer. I picked up pastries from Alon’s that morning. We used Kerry’s Zoom account to do some livestreaming. We wanted to make sure family and friends got to be a part of it. On the virtual stream, somebody wore pearls, somebody put on a dress and makeup, someone wore a tuxedo T-shirt, one of the bridesmaids who couldn’t be there even wore her dress. There was a beautiful moment in the ceremony where Bill was addressing the virtual crowd. His remarks almost made the park feel like it was full. He did an affirmation: “Will you guys support this couple?” That was a beautiful moment, looking over at an iPhone on a tripod and hearing everyone say, “We will.”
Expanded interviews: These Georgians had so much more to say than we had space to print. To read their full stories, click on the names below.
Dr. Michelle Au | Dr. Meria Carstarphen | Devon Clinkscales | Hugh Acheson | Amy Phuong | Mike Gallagher | Jarrett Stieber | Belisa Urbina | Shawn Ware |Dock Hollingsworth | Keisha Lance Bottoms | Joey Camp | Dr. Laurence Busse | Dr. Jessica Nave | Marshall Rancifer | Brad Levenberg
This article appears in our May 2020 issue.