Here’s how Atlanta coronavirus fears have stopped customer touching

Laura Abbott, a radiation oncology technician at Blue Pearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital, brings her patient Falcon, a Maine Coon, for treatment Tuesday, March 31, 2020.  The emergency animal hospital in Sandy Springs is continuing to operate with curb-side, drive-up service for checking in pets and technician pick ups and drop offs into owner's cars.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Laura Abbott, a radiation oncology technician at Blue Pearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital, brings her patient Falcon, a Maine Coon, for treatment Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The emergency animal hospital in Sandy Springs is continuing to operate with curb-side, drive-up service for checking in pets and technician pick ups and drop offs into owner's cars. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Far more than handshakes have disappeared from metro Atlanta’s daily routine of serving customers and doing business. Being close up and personal was once a cherished selling point. Not now.

Local doctors, paint stores, ham provisioners, optometrists, food deliverers, gas stations and others are scrambling for increasingly innovative ways to make their interactions with the public as touchless and distant as possible to avoid spreading the new coronavirus.

So ophthalmologists, dermatologists, urologists and orthopedic surgeons are doing no-touch online consults. Veterinarians are directing pet owners to stay in their cars while someone comes to fetch Tiger. Auto dealers are bringing vehicles to customers’ homes for test drives. Or they are picking up cars to be serviced and returned, then disinfected at touch points, with covers put over steering wheels similar to the way hotel housekeepers once certified cleaned toilets.

Georgia-based RaceTrac is using its night pay boxes as a way to transact with customers worried about coming in its convenience stores at any time of the day. A strip club moved to virtual lap dances. Dentists and car salespeople have ditched handshakes. The word touchless has become a marketing standard, at least temporarily.

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BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital is continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic but is preventing owners from entering the hospital. Instead, it is keeping owners in cars. Jake, a greyhound with an emergency leg injury, is moved from his owner’s car to a gurney by hospital technicians Jennifer Eberhart, left, Ann Holbrooks, center, and John Ashley. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital is continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic but is preventing owners from entering the hospital. Instead, it is keeping owners in cars. Jake, a greyhound with an emergency leg injury, is moved from his owner’s car to a gurney by hospital technicians Jennifer Eberhart, left, Ann Holbrooks, center, and John Ashley. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital is continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic but is preventing owners from entering the hospital. Instead, it is keeping owners in cars. Jake, a greyhound with an emergency leg injury, is moved from his owner’s car to a gurney by hospital technicians Jennifer Eberhart, left, Ann Holbrooks, center, and John Ashley. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Not all operational pivots are easy, though. And the results aren’t always what’s expected.

Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Anita Rigmaiden was convinced her Cosmic Energy Fitness Studio at Northlake Mall in DeKalb County wouldn’t survive fears about COVID-19.

Senior citizens were a crucial part of her business, but then they heeded public health directions to stay home and avoid large groups. Younger patrons soon did the same. That should have meant no more sweating with friends.

So Rigmaiden took what she figured was a long shot for many of her older clients who aren’t always comfortable with some technology: offering her classes online, using the Zoom video conferencing platform.

“Some of them panicked a little bit,” she said.

Rigmaiden had to walk many of them through the set up process. “I’ve been on several very long conversations. It’s been as simple as ‘Read to me what you see on your screen …. Now put this in your search bar: www. ….’”

She was surprised 80 percent of her older clients have made the leap, a much higher percentage than the middle age customers who take more intensive classes.

And some have told friends in other parts of metro Atlanta, who have joined in.

Nearly 60 people logged in for a recent class, which Rigmaiden led from a cleared-out extra bedroom of her Conyers home. Clients can watch her on their computer screens and see friends in the class who have turned on the cameras on their computers. Rigmaiden sets the system go live 15 minutes before class starts and keeps it on 10 minutes after so classmates can chat.

Sandy White, a 75-year-old from Tucker, was among them.

“It is wonderful to still be able to see each other and make sure everyone is OK,” White said.

“I miss being out and going places and shopping, going to the nursery and Home Depot. This is just a highlight for us that we have some place where we can be with live people.”

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Herbal Planet owner Susan Harden, talks about how she and her staff are taking extreme precautions to stay safe during the coronavirus outbreak. ( Tyson Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com)

While other parts of the fitness industry were increasingly moving online prior to COVID-19, some had remained face-to-face, hands-on businesses, Rigmaiden said. “It becomes more about relationships. It becomes more about the rapport you build with people.”

Some transitions to avoid physical interactions are easier than others.

Online used-car dealer Carvana already had most of the steps in its process handled remotely, including virtual vehicle tours. One exception was the drop off of vehicles to customers, who typically are seeing them in person for the first time after already agreeing to buy. In response to the pandemic, Carvana added what it calls a touchless delivery. The deliverer wipes down keys and other touch points, leaves paperwork on the seat of the car, then gets back in the hauler to call a customer and let them know the coast is clear. The worker waits there, staying on the phone, until the customer has signed the paperwork and left it in a safe place to be retrieved after they have gone back inside.

Creating other barriers to contact sometimes takes a lot more work. Kroger, Publix and Walmart are among retailers that are rolling out plastic shields to separate customers from store workers on checkout lines.

The Honey Baked Ham Company has had a simpler solution: it pushed tables in front of its counters to create space between workers and customers coming in for pickups. It also limits how many customers can be in the store at one time and has urged them to enter alone, rather than bringing along family. Food deliverers like DoorDash now have their apps defaulting to a no-contact option, such as “leave it at my door.”

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Laura Abbott, a radiation oncology technician at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital, carried in her patient Falcon, a Maine Coon, for treatment. The emergency animal hospital in Sandy Springs is continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic with curb-side, drive-up service for checking in pets. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Laura Abbott, a radiation oncology technician at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital, carried in her patient Falcon, a Maine Coon, for treatment. The emergency animal hospital in Sandy Springs is continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic with curb-side, drive-up service for checking in pets. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Laura Abbott, a radiation oncology technician at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Hospital, carried in her patient Falcon, a Maine Coon, for treatment. The emergency animal hospital in Sandy Springs is continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic with curb-side, drive-up service for checking in pets. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Restaurateurs who remain open are often offering curbside pickup. Paint retailer Sherwin-Williams now only allows customers to order online or by phone and either delivers materials or requires customers to do curbside pickup, staying in their vehicles while purchases are loaded into their trunk.

Before the pandemic, long lines were common outside on weekend mornings at Revolution Doughnuts in Decatur and Inman Park. Now, sit-down dining spaces are closed in both locations, and the more confined Inman Park shop is allowing only online ordering and pickup. Neither shop is accepting cash, with the Decatur location marking chalked spaces on the floor to spread out customers waiting in line and creating a touchless pickup area with boxed orders.

“There is still humanity left. We just have to stand six feet apart,” owner Maria Moore Riggs said.

“Baristas are still standing at the counter and warmly welcoming people.… There is still that personal connection of a neighborhood coffee shop. It’s just that you can’t sit down in the space any more.”

ExploreFor local veterinary operations there are more barriers between workers and families.

Arriving pet owners at BluePearl Specialty + Emergency Pet Hospital, with six locations in metro Atlanta, are directed to specific numbered parking spaces and told to wait in their vehicles. Staff come out to pick up ailing dogs and cats and bring them inside. Owners are no longer allowed in exam rooms or the lobby. Staffers often communicate with waiting owners by phone.

Barbara Schick, a regional director of operations, said the measures are part of being responsible to the community, workers and clients, who think of pets as family members. But it’s not ideal.

“It feels so impersonal not having the families as united together as possible,” she said.