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A different world, a different Easter celebration

Café Intermezzo-Midtown employees hand out meals to Atlanta’s foodservice industry employees Saturday, April 11, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Café Intermezzo-Midtown employees hand out meals to Atlanta’s foodservice industry employees Saturday, April 11, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Sunday dawns in a world fundamentally changed.

On a normal Easter Sunday, congregations in their spring best would file into their pews for Christianity’s holiest day. This Easter, Gov. Brian Kemp, a devout Christian, pleaded with Georgians to stay home.

Last Easter, Pastor Montell Jordan — the R&B icon of “This Is How We Do It” fame — led a group of thousands to the summit of Stone Mountain for sunrise service. This year, in the days of social distancing, the threat of the coronavirus put a pause on what would be the 76th year of the tradition.

Many Georgians will awaken this Easter Sunday and mourn the loss of other rituals taken for granted. Some, sadly, will mourn the losses of friends, relatives, neighbors.

A 22-year-old Muscogee County woman is the youngest person to die in Georgia thus far from COVID-19. There were 7 confirmed deaths reported in Georgia on Saturday. The state Department of Public Health said the woman, whose name was not released, had an undisclosed pre-existing condition.

A different holiday

Yvonne Jobe, 77, typically celebrates Easter with a large potluck dinner at her neighbor’s house in south DeKalb County. This year, of course, it’s canceled.

She said she hasn’t gone grocery shopping in several weeks and instead takes short drives to the senior center on Candler Road to pick up meals.

“You’re anxious when you keep hearing about people dying,” Jobe said.

Some said they will try to find creative ways to make the observance special.

Matthew Weber, 39, a realtor who lives in Dunwoody, said he and his wife have planned a backyard Easter egg hunt for their two sons. The couple usually goes to church, visits their parents and indulges in large family meals.

“It’s just going to be the four of us. Us and our dog,” Weber said.

Frank Cox, senior pastor at North Metro Baptist Church near Coolray Field outside Lawrenceville, said “everything we do as a church we do now online.”

Cox said his sermons receive about 3,000 to 4,000 online views each Sunday since his Gwinnett County church moved online and he expects that viewership to swell by the thousands for Easter as North Metro urged members to invite friends and family to livestream the service.

“I have never missed Easter in my life,” Cox said. “To tell my congregation, ‘Don’t come,’ goes against everything in my pastor’s heart. This is not government overreach, this is not about religious liberty. This is a health issue.”

This year, Jordan’s church, Victory World Church in Norcross, recorded a series of Easter services that began broadcasting live on Good Friday and will continue on Sunday.

When the pandemic recedes, the singer turned pastor said people won’t take personal contact for granted.

“There are people who haven’t hugged their parents or a friend for fear that they may harm themselves or harm someone else,” he said. “A simple embrace … is now reduced to FaceTimes and phone calls.”

Montell Jordan (R) and his wife Kristin enjoy the view on the top of Stone Mountain before the start of the 75th Annual Easter Sunrise Service Sunday, April 21, 2019. Jordan, a former Billboard Top Ten artist, now serves as executive pastor for Victory World Church in Norcross, GA. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Montell Jordan (R) and his wife Kristin enjoy the view on the top of Stone Mountain before the start of the 75th Annual Easter Sunrise Service Sunday, April 21, 2019. Jordan, a former Billboard Top Ten artist, now serves as executive pastor for Victory World Church in Norcross, GA. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The coronavirus also has upended the rituals of other faiths, including the celebration of Passover for Jews, and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan set to begin on April 23.

On Saturday, the state Department of Public Health reported 12,261 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Georgia, up from 11,859 on Friday. But Saturday’s figure is nearly double the 6,383 confirmed reported the previous Saturday.

Confirmed deaths, likewise, had more than doubled to 432 on Saturday from 208 just seven days earlier.

Just two Saturdays ago — March 28 — the state reported 2,336 confirmed cases and 79 deaths.

Masks and testing

Cases and deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities also continue to mount, a chilling reminder of the virus’ threat to vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those living in group settings.

To punctuate how changed life is amid the coronavirus outbreak, many senior facilities and homes for hospice and convalescent care are now battlefields against an invisible threat.

Kemp’s coronavirus task force deployed 58 Georgia Army National Guard infection control teams to clean senior homes across the state to stem the tide of infections.

“We are going to fight this virus with everything we’ve got, and we’ll do so with a commitment to win,” Adjutant General Tom Carden said Friday in a news release.

A little more than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump struck an optimistic tone, calling for the country to be “opened up and just raring to go by Easter.”

Ultimately, in the face of dire projections of COVID-19 deaths nationally, Trump reversed course.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

On Friday, Dr. Carlos del Rio, a prominent Emory University infectious disease expert, said cases of the disease continue to climb as testing slowly expands. Many more deaths are expected.

But rates of hospitalizations are not increasing at the exponential figures some modeling predicted could happen before stricter social distancing measures were put into place, del Rio said in an online briefing.

“We’re not having our hospitals overwhelmed the way New York has had its hospitals overwhelmed,” he said.

Though some of the data are looking promising, del Rio said, “let’s keep doing what we’re doing.”

Georgia cases could peak in the days and weeks ahead. Del Rio said life is likely to look different as leaders look for ways to safely reopen society.

Another way coronavirus has upended daily life can be spotted on the faces of shoppers at stores across metro Atlanta. Face masks have become a common accessory since the pandemic hit.

But it was only in recent days that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formally recommended that residents wear cloth face coverings in public places where social distancing is difficult.

Georgia, however, has a law that makes it illegal to wear a mask in most public places. It was adopted nearly 70 years ago to combat the Ku Klux Klan.

State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, wrote a letter to Kemp and called on him to suspend the law to encourage people to follow the CDC guidelines. The coronavirus has disproportionately affected African Americans and other minorities.

Williams also worries racial profiling by law enforcement could “only get worse for people of color who wear homemade cloth coverings.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the city’s police officers not to enforce the law after reading a report that two black men were forced out of a Walmart in Illinois because they wouldn’t take off their surgical masks.

Kemp said through a spokeswoman that he is considering his options.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.