Aiming for normalcy, cities hold concerts and events despite pandemic

Peachtree Corners holds its first concert of the 2020 Town Green Concert Series with Electric Avenue performing live on Saturday, July 25, 2020.  Groups of 6 and 4 people pods  enjoyed food and drinks without masks during the show and were spaces 6 feet apart.  Masks were required when moving to vendors, between bathrooms and to cars; dancing was allowed within your designated space.   (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Peachtree Corners holds its first concert of the 2020 Town Green Concert Series with Electric Avenue performing live on Saturday, July 25, 2020. Groups of 6 and 4 people pods enjoyed food and drinks without masks during the show and were spaces 6 feet apart. Masks were required when moving to vendors, between bathrooms and to cars; dancing was allowed within your designated space. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Andria Labato quickly made friends with neighbors in her townhouse community when she moved to Peachtree Corners a year ago. But since March, there haven’t been many ways for the group to socialize outside of the community pool.

When Peachtree Corners announced it would again be holding summer concerts, Labato invited two other couples over for cocktails before the group headed to the show, and the six-person circle meant to help maintain social distancing she had reserved on the city’s Town Green.

They watched the ‘80s cover band Electric Avenue on a warm July evening.

“It was so refreshing,” Labato said. “The music was so much fun and the night air was just perfect.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, with around 209,000 cases and upwards of 4,000 deaths in the state, cities like Peachtree Corners are looking for ways to get back to normal — with summer concerts, movies and other events that residents expected before the pandemic.

While a number of cities have canceled, postponed or scaled down their entertainment visions, others have looked for workarounds.

In Peachtree Corners, more than 100 circles were painted on the Town Green, some big enough for a family of four and others that could comfortably fit a family of six. At that first concert, in late July, Community Development Director Diana Wheeler said there were about 600 people in attendance. The green normally has the capacity for 5,000, but the painted circles that ensure people stay six feet apart reduced the capacity to about 800.

Free reservations were all booked, Wheeler said, but some families didn’t show up to take their seats. For the next concert — the blues band Texas Flood and Tommy Katona Aug. 29 — the city will begin to release the circles to walk-ups 30 minutes after the music starts.

Wheeler said the city put a lot of effort into keeping people safe, from color-coding wristbands indicating what entrances and exits they could use to having a bathroom monitor so patrons didn’t crowd the stalls.

The city required masks outside the circles, had plenty of hand sanitizer and prohibited people from cramming around the stage to dance, she said. Still, Wheeler acknowledged that holding events like the concert is a “social experiment.”

“We don’t know that we’ve guaranteed everyone’s safety,” she said. “There’s always going to be a certain amount of risk.”

Some of that risk come from patrons like Labato, who defied a city rule that all occupants of a circle be from the same household.

Labato, a hairdresser in her 40s, said she’s in good health and trusts her friends. Jack Webster, another Peachtree Corners resident who went to the show with friends, said he didn’t realize he was flouting the rule until he was already there.

Webster and his friends sat on opposite sides of their four-person circle, he said, to try and maintain some distance as they took their masks off to eat and drink.

“We stayed in the circle, but separate,” he said. “You live and learn.”

For the next event, the city will consider checking IDs or other ways to ensure that people from different households aren’t congregating. Wheeler said she was concerned that people were not adhering to guidelines, but said they were “jeopardizing their own well-being.”

“We certainly don’t condone that,” she said. “It’s something to pay attention to.”

The concert itself goes against the recommendation of Audrey Arona, the CEO and district health director for the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health Departments.

If cities insist on having them, she said, there’s more they can do to ensure safety. That includes not selling food and drinks — nearby restaurants had food for sale, though Peachtree Corners did not — and doing temperature checks before letting people into the throng.

With large crowds, Arona said, it’s hard to enforce distancing and mask-wearing recommendations and people sometimes skirt the rules.

“I really try to discourage large events,” Arona said. “I don’t think any city wants to be labeled as an outbreak because of an event that they hosted.”

Large gatherings are more likely to spread the virus, Arona said, and this far into the pandemic “every single coronavirus case and every single coronavirus death is preventable.”

There is rampant community spread in Gwinnett. With more than 19,000 confirmed cases, Gwinnett is second only to Fulton County.

“It’s all over what we do,” Arona said.

The city of Lawrenceville canceled its planned concert series, including the July 4 fireworks display that had been moved to September. While some residents aren’t happy with the decision, events and programs manager Jasmine Billings said it was neither safe nor realistic to bring large crowds to the city’s Lawn.

Still, Billings said, she wanted to find something that would build a sense of place in Lawrenceville and make people feel like they’re part of the community. The city plans to have street performers downtown and Billings said drive-in movies on county property will begin in September.

“It’s a long, drawn-out decision,” Billings said of the cancellations.

Some cities cancel or scale back events

Other cities, including Norcross and Sugar Hill in Gwinnett, have also canceled fireworks, concerts and parades in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Brookhaven, it was the annual Cherry Blossom Festival that had to go.

Ann Marie Quill, a spokesperson for the city, said the movie nights that the city has planned instead are meant to bring a sense of normalcy to the year, especially for kids. The DeKalb County city has drive-in movies planned, as well as those on a lawn with socially distanced circles painted on the grass.

The summer amphitheater concerts in Peachtree City were a victim of the pandemic, as well. But a 500-person show at Drake Field by the band Flux on Aug. 22 will let a fraction of the 2,500 people who would normally come to a show enjoy a rite of summer.

Quinn Bledsoe, the recreation director in the Fayette County city, said she will have stakes at the entrance to demonstrate how far apart six feet is, and at food and beer trucks. But people will be left on their own to social distance — at least for now.

Painted circles are also under consideration, but Bledsoe worried with different-sized groups, they might not fit everyone who planned to attend.

The city still plans to hold its annual Shakerag Festival in the fall, though Bledsoe said there’s no telling what events might look like in just a few weeks.

“Everything changes,” she said. “The governor could come out tomorrow and this could all go away.”

Because so many entertainment options haven’t been available this summer, Amy Keeney said, it’s important that Clayton County give people an outlet to enjoy themselves. Keeney, the deputy administrator in the parks and recreation department, said events like movie nights, fishing derbies and a technique-based youth sports camp give residents opportunities to have some semblance of normalcy.

“I just think it’s essential to keep activities for people to go out and do,” she said. “There’s not as many choices.”

They’re appreciated by people like Nicole Reagin, who spent her 51st birthday with five girlfriends at the Peachtree Corners concert. Reagin, who lives in Johns Creek, said she hadn’t realized how much she missed live music.

“It felt good to get out and have some sense of normalcy, even if it wasn’t completely normal,” she said. “It was just really nice to cut loose and kind of forget about the pandemic for a little while.”