On the top levels of a Northside Hospital parking deck, a few hundred people, most without masks, gathered Saturday to watch a flyby from the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels and Air Force’s Thunderbirds honoring health workers fighting to save lives from COVID-19.
The gathering had a Fourth of July vibe, with American flags, beach chairs and umbrellas. When the jets roared in formation over the hospital, the crowd of formerly housebound Georgians let out a cathartic roar, too.
“We just want to be part of the celebration and support the frontline workers,” said Maryanne Spinuzzi of Alpharetta, who had a mask.
Amid the patriotic fervor and spring fever, there remains loss.
The state Department of Public Health said confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 28,332 on Saturday, up 840 from the day before. Deaths increased by nine to 1,174.
In Southeast Atlanta, families in need lined up as the East Lake Foundation distributed more than 2,000 boxes of groceries by midday. In DeKalb County, police and fire recruits fanned out to many poorer areas hard hit by COVID-19 and passed out 2,000 masks to residents entering stores.
Twenty miles from Northside Hospital, Kenya Gooch, who runs Heart 2 Heart Health Service in East Point, a home health firm caring for poor and largely elderly patients, felt forgotten. Gooch’s company serves 22 housebound and medically fragile people who rely on home health aides for bathing, toileting and meals.
Gooch said she’s competing with reopening businesses for masks and gloves and can’t find enough supplies to protect her patients, nurses and certified nursing assistants, many of whom also work in hospitals. Gooch said she’s had to let clients with families who can care for their loved ones take over because of the risk of transmitting the virus.
Gooch said she’s been forced to buy as many supplies as she can afford out of her own pocket as prices soar.
“They’re dependent upon us to have dignity,” she said. “But we need help, too.”
‘Use your common sense’
Saturday was the first weekend day after the expiration of Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, as well as the first Saturday restaurants could be open for dine-in service. As temperatures climbed into the 80s, parks and the Beltline were bustling, and on the patios of some eateries — save for the servers wearing surgical masks — it looked like a normal spring day.
Shelter-in-place restrictions are still in place for the medically fragile through June 12. Kemp and the state’s top doctor, Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, have urged Georgians to stay home and keep their distances from others and to wear face coverings.
Public health experts in Georgia and beyond have argued the state is still seeing increased cases of the disease. The state has ramped up testing, but not enough testing has taken place to understand the scope of the disease.
“I appreciate what Gov. Kemp is trying to do,” said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a Maryland nonprofit that supports state and local public health agencies. “People are dying of the virus or they very well could be dying an economic death. But when you think about those people who are going to be first back at work, regardless of how risky it’s going to be, it’s those that need the money most who are most vulnerable to this virus.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution visited popular gathering spots across metro Atlanta, and few patrons appeared to be wearing masks, though employees of stores and eateries seemed to be following the rules.
Moe’s and Joe’s Tavern, the longtime restaurant and watering hole in Virginia-Highland, reopened its patio area for in-person dining on Friday. A few tables were spread out across the patio on Saturday, and servers wore masks.
“It’s a pretty day,” said Kelsey Flynn, 32, waiting for drinks on the patio. “We’re far away from everyone … all the servers are wearing masks, and you know, why not? You just have to be smart, use your common sense.”
At busy Piedmont Park, small groups having picnics filled the large meadow. Cyclists, walkers and joggers hit the paths while uplifting music emanated from speakers. Most people were not wearing masks.
Outside the restaurant Park Tavern, a line formed for to-go beer and other drinks. The nearby parking lot was packed.
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DeKalb County, meanwhile, plans to distribute 10,000 masks to residents in need over the next six weeks. Kits also include hand sanitizer and information on how residents can get tested for COVID-19.
“A lot of the citizens are having to make decisions during these times of whether they purchase bread or they’re able to get PPE,” said DeKalb fire Chief Darnell Fullum, who spent his Saturday morning at the Belvedere Plaza Kroger, near the corner of Memorial and Columbia drives.
The nonsurgical masks went quickly on Saturday, Fullum said. They have been difficult to find in stores and online, but the county began stockpiling supplies over a month ago, Fullum said.
The Blue Angels and Thunderbirds took off from Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta and flew over Northside and Emory St. Joseph's hospitals in Sandy Springs before looping around Midtown and downtown and then south of the city. Flyovers also happened in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
Elizabeth Duttera, her husband and two sons, said the family came to Northside out of sense of patriotism. Sheltering at home has been difficult. They’ve lost their sons’ baseball seasons, swimming, tennis and school. They can’t hug friends or go to church.
Still, Duttera said she “strongly disagreed” with Kemp’s order reopening many businesses, and the family was in the minority wearing masks at the Northside flyover.
In Midtown, Bill Balkovetz and his fiance Kelly Brown waved American flags while waiting for the flyover.
“I’m looking forward now to healing; the next steps (are) to get America back to work and get our country back on track,” Balkovetz said.
But Gooch, the home health professional, said it’s too soon for so many to venture out. Gooch said four relatives who live out of state — two cousins and two uncles — died from COVID-19.
“People are still not taking precautions,” she said. “You don’t know who has it.”