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Normalcy amid crisis: Sunshine almost enough to forget COVID-19?

Cars fill the back parking lot of the New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur during their drive-in Sunday service, May 3, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Cars fill the back parking lot of the New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur during their drive-in Sunday service, May 3, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Sunbathers on blankets dotted the Piedmont Park meadow Sunday and some state parks were so busy that rangers would only let in one car for each vehicle that left.

Outside a Decatur church, worshippers lifted their hands to the azure sky and sang. Bishop James Morton thanked congregants, some seated in their cars, for offerings to keep the church running.

“This too shall pass,” Morton said.

The sun-splashed day offered a hint of normalcy amid crisis — almost enough to make people forget about the toll COVID-19 has exacted on Georgia and the nation.

A toll of lives and livelihoods.

Public health experts warned Sunday the coronavirus hasn’t vanished because of the sunshine, and that easing social distancing restrictions could have deadly consequences.

As of Sunday night, the virus has killed 1,179 in Georgia, and infected 28,671 with known cases, according to the state Department of Public Health.

New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church Worship Leader Demetrius Banks talks to the church members in there cars during the drive-in Sunday service on May 3, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church Worship Leader Demetrius Banks talks to the church members in there cars during the drive-in Sunday service on May 3, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Georgia is one of about three dozen states that have loosened social restrictions or rescinded shelter-in-place orders. The mandate is still in effect for medically fragile persons through June 12 and Gov. Brian Kemp has urged citizens to stay home, stay apart and wear masks.

But like most states that are reopening, Georgia has yet to fully meet White House benchmarks that are recommended before easing restrictions.

Given the incubation period of the virus, experts say it might take two or three weeks before they know if the relaxed restrictions trigger a new wave of infections.

The White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, on Sunday again criticized states for reopening businesses where workers and customers come into close contact.

Asked on Fox News Sunday if masks make it safer to patronize a spa or salon, Birx replied: “It’s safer, but we’ve made it clear that’s not a good Phase One activity, and I think the president made it clear when we discussed the case in Georgia.”

More malls open

Monday brings a fresh test of another step toward normalcy.

Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza and three other flagship malls — Mall of Georgia, Town Center at Cobb and Sugarloaf Mills — will reopen across metro Atlanta, with new hygiene protocols in place.

Cumberland and Perimeter malls will reopen Tuesday.

The hospitality and retail industries have been particularly battered by the outbreak.

The Atlanta Beltline was crowded in Saturday.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
The Atlanta Beltline was crowded in Saturday. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Nationally, some 30 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past six weeks. Since mid-March, nearly 1.4 million jobless claims have been processed in Georgia, or more than a quarter of the state’s workers.

Raphael Bostic, the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, told Face The Nation on Sunday that federal loans and stimulus checks have yet to reach the bank accounts of all eligible recipients.

“We know for many businesses and many families they don’t have six or seven or eight months of savings,” he said. “They may only have one or two months of savings, which means we’re getting to about the time when those savings are going to be depleted.”

‘Keep everyone safe’

Many of the restaurants that chose to reopen this weekend for sit-down service were busy, especially those with outdoor patios.

Moe’s Original Bar B Que near Midtown reopened both its patio and main dining room. Employees changed gloves and washed their hands after every order, which sometimes led to short delays in service, said manager Qorra Suarez.

Suarez said it was a bit worrisome being around so many strangers over the weekend.

“To keep everyone safe, we’re like: ‘Y’all, food takes a little while longer than normal,’” she said.

Sunday was calmer than Saturday at Piedmont Park and on the Beltline, where huge crowds gathered on Saturday for flybys by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and Air Force Thunderbirds.

Tiffany Luo donned a mask and hit the Piedmont Dog Park Sunday to let Minerva, her 4-year-old beagle terrier mix, enjoy some time outside.

“I figured I can still keep my distance while my dog can have fun,” said Luo, 26.

The drive-in Sunday service at the New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur on Sunday was a lively scene. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
The drive-in Sunday service at the New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur on Sunday was a lively scene. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Near the park’s bocce ball complex, Jeff and Terry Brown enjoyed some takeout lunch on a park bench, which the Roswell couple covered with a blanket, so they didn’t touch it directly.

“I think it’s kind of a feeling-out period to see what’s going to work, what’s going to be acceptable,” Jeff Brown, 60, said. “My impression is, folks are being real respectful and social distancing.”

Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said officers talk to people each day to inform and prevent possible violations, “with voluntary compliance as our goal.”

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said state law enforcement is closely monitoring for compliance with the governor’s orders.

She said there have been no issues on Georgia’s beaches, but several state parks were at capacity, and rangers implemented a “one car in, one car out” policy to help ensure social distancing.

“At some parks, law enforcement encountered gatherings in violation of the order, but all were immediately rectified with verbal warnings and education about current orders,” Broce said.

Churches seek and offer aid

At New Beginning Full Gospel Baptist Church in Decatur, Bishop Morton said expenses have to paid even without in-person services.

“Thank you one and all for helping keep our church going,” Morton told those who could tithe. “And we are going to make it. We’re going to get to the other side of this.”

» GALLERY: Sunday’s  service at the Decatur church

As houses of worship cope with the pandemic’s challenges, congregations continue to help their communities through food assistance and even coronavirus testing.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

On Monday, House of Hope on Flat Shoals Parkway near Decatur will offer free testing from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Appointments can be made by calling the DeKalb County Board of Health at 404-294-3700.

Mount Nebo Baptist Church and Life Center on McDonough Boulevard in East Atlanta will open a testing center Monday and Tuesday in conjunction with the Fulton County Board of Health. Appointments can be made at 404-613-8150 and are advised, but unscheduled drive-ups and walk-ups are available.

According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, more than 80 percent of Georgia coronavirus hospitalizations in March were among African Americans.

“We know about the health disparities that exist in our community and the need for widespread testing,” the Rev. Aaron Jones III said.