Joy, caution as virus-weary folks flock to few reopened malls, stores

A COVID-19 sign flaps in the wind above people on the Beltline near 10th and Monroe Drive in Atlanta on Friday, May 1, 2020, after Gov. Brian Kemp lifted a shelter-at-home mandate for most Georgians on Thursday, ending the state’s most ambitious attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
A COVID-19 sign flaps in the wind above people on the Beltline near 10th and Monroe Drive in Atlanta on Friday, May 1, 2020, after Gov. Brian Kemp lifted a shelter-at-home mandate for most Georgians on Thursday, ending the state’s most ambitious attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Just past noon Friday, the Avenue West Cobb presented a familiar suburban landscape, altered by a global pandemic.

The shopping center’s anchor, Barnes & Noble, was closed. Kirkland’s, a home décor store, was open, the smell of potpourri drifting to the sidewalk outside.

Sunglass Hut and Victoria’s Secret were closed; Simply Mac and a sports memorabilia shop, closed. At Jos. A. Bank, a flyer taped to the front door said the clothing store would be closed until the end of March.

But on the 1st of May, following an April that was largely erased from the calendar, similar scenes played out across metro Atlanta. It was the day after Gov. Brian Kemp ended a monthlong lockdown intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but it was hardly business as usual.

Many stores and shopping malls remained closed. The owner of Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza and the Mall of Georgia, among others, abandoned plans to resume operations on Friday, postponing their reopenings until Monday.

Many shoppers weren’t quite willing to hit the stores yet. But others were happy for the chance to venture outside their homes, no longer under orders to shelter in place.

“I love it,” said Abbie Shipp of Paulding County, who went to the Marietta Square with a party hat and balloons to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “I’m obviously very excited.”

When Kemp lifted the shelter-at-home order for most Georgians on Thursday, he said the economic consequences of the lockdown equaled the threat from the new coronavirus. He ordered elderly and medically fragile residents to stay home until at least June 12, and he instructed reopening businesses to follow social-distancing and sanitation guidelines.

Public health experts criticized Kemp’s decision, predicting a surge of new cases in the coming weeks.


COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA


The state reported Friday evening that 1,165 Georgians have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That was an increase of 33 in the previous 24 hours.

Confirmed cases rose above the 27,000 mark — up by more than 1,000 in a single day. However, the surge may reflect an increase in the state’s testing capacity. The more people tested, the more cases are likely to be confirmed.

“We’re still seeing cases, and we’ve expected that,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Georgia’s public health commissioner, said in an interview after Kemp eased social restrictions this week. “We want to keep flattening the curve. That doesn’t require a mandate. It requires individuals to make a commitment, continuing these efforts to help themselves and the community.”

Adam Kryschuk strolls through the Avalon outdoor shopping area in Alpharetta on Friday morning May 1, 2020. Kryschuk, who lives nearby, came with Amy Heigl to walk the dog and see what stores were opening up. (Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Adam Kryschuk strolls through the Avalon outdoor shopping area in Alpharetta on Friday morning May 1, 2020. Kryschuk, who lives nearby, came with Amy Heigl to walk the dog and see what stores were opening up. (Ben@BenGray.com for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In some parts of metro Atlanta, little seemed to have changed since the lockdown ended.

“Please don’t come inside,” read a sign on the window at Cafe Intermezzo at 11th and Peachtree streets in Midtown Atlanta. Like virtually every other restaurant along Peachtree, it still offered only curbside takeout service.

And at the Monroe Drive entrance to the Atlanta Beltline, a flashing sign warned: “STAY ON GUARD. COVID-19 IS STILL TAKING LIVES.”

Many of the businesses that reopened focused on protecting their employees and customers — and making sure shoppers felt safe.

“We Lysol everything that customers touch,” said Kirstyn Humbert, a salesperson at the Altar’d State boutique at Avalon in Alpharetta. “Same thing in the fitting room. We completely disinfect the room before we allow another person inside. We’re trying to make sure everybody feels safe because we want people to come in.”

People make their way into the Greenbriar Mall in southwest Atlanta on Friday, May 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
People make their way into the Greenbriar Mall in southwest Atlanta on Friday, May 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Ginger Howard, owner of an eponymous women’s clothing boutique in Buckhead that had been closed since March 18, said she limited the number of customers entering the store on Friday and had only one employee on duty. She also had a supply of gloves, masks and hand sanitizer.

“It has been very difficult for me and my business and my employees,” Howard said during a video news conference organized by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative evangelical group, to show support for Kemp’s ending the lockdown. “But we really wanted to do what was right for our employees and our customers.”

Another business owner who appeared on the news conference, David Nicholas of Nicholas Wealth Management, described Kemp’s decision as a balancing of liberty and safety.

“He’s not forcing any business to open,” Nicholas said. “The government does have a role to ensure our rights are protected.”

A steady stream of people enter the Southlake Mall in Morrow on Friday, May 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
A steady stream of people enter the Southlake Mall in Morrow on Friday, May 1, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Many shoppers had less lofty thoughts on their minds.

Wearing a face mask, Mitch Snow of Jonesboro went to Southlake Mall in Morrow in search of a necklace for his wife, who is recovering from surgery for brain cancer. His options were more limited than he expected.

“I wanted to get the necklace from Kay Jewelers, but they weren’t open,” Snow said. “So I got it from Bella Jewelry.”

Regardless, he said, “I think my wife will be very happy.”

Even with the shelter-at-home mandate lifted, Kemp and Toomey stressed Friday that Georgians should do everything possible to protect themselves. In a statement, they urged residents to practice social distancing, to wash their hands frequently and to wear masks when they go out in public.

They seem to have not followed their own advice, however. Neither wore a mask at public events this week, including a news conference and a prayer session in the Capitol. And even when he met with victims of a possible tornado in South Georgia, Kemp’s face was bare.

Staff writers Alexis Stevens, Stephen Deere, Leon Stafford, Adrianne Murchison and Kristal Dixon contributed to this article.