Seismic shift: Georgians reflect on moment COVID-19 transformed lives

Katherine D’Alessandro passes her three-week-old son Dominic “Beatty” to her husband David D’Alessandro as they eat breakfast at their residence in Duluth. The couple moved from Boston to Georgia to live with David’s father, who is recently widowed. Now three generations live under one-roof nearly a year following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Katherine D’Alessandro passes her three-week-old son Dominic “Beatty” to her husband David D’Alessandro as they eat breakfast at their residence in Duluth. The couple moved from Boston to Georgia to live with David’s father, who is recently widowed. Now three generations live under one-roof nearly a year following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Many describe impact of first days with brilliant detail

Teresa Sardine remembers the ominous signs: Silent, empty interstates. Barren grocery store shelves gleaming under bright lights. Her grandsons’ public schools closing.

“We started buying toilet paper,” she said. “We started buying as much stuff as possible because you just became scared. Everyone was panicking.”

In the months that followed amid the coronavirus outbreak, Sardine, 62, who works in the legal services industry, would scramble to make ends meet as she lost income.

“No matter which way we looked at it, we were stuck,” said Sardine, who lives with her two adult sons in Fayetteville. “So what do we do next?”

ABOUT OUR PANDEMIC ANNIVERSARY SERIES
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, more than half a million Americans, including more than 15,000 in Georgia alone, have died from COVID-19. Over the past year, just about every aspect of daily life also has changed, from the tragic to the mundane. Between now and March 21, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is publishing several stories chronicling the impact on Atlantans and Georgians — what we’ve lost, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve gained.Coming Friday: How we exercise

A year after routines abruptly halted and fear rolled in like fog, Georgians vividly recall when COVID-19 changed everything. When the loneliness, the foreboding and inescapable despair made them recognize the pandemic was real, was deadly and was changing the world, in some ways irrevocably.

They remember the creased faces of exhausted nurses. Empty restaurants. Empty theaters. Empty stadiums. Harried parents juggling work while educating their children at home. No kisses hello or goodbye. No hugs. Not even a handshake. Masked mourners grieving at sparsely attended funerals.

ExploreHow we ... -- More ways Atlantans have changed during the lockdown
Traffic on April 1, 2020, was absurdly light at Atlanta's Spaghetti Junction, as the region reacted to the coronavirus spread. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Traffic on April 1, 2020, was absurdly light at Atlanta's Spaghetti Junction, as the region reacted to the coronavirus spread. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

One year ago, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. By then, there were only six confirmed COVID-19 cases in Georgia. Today, more than 830,000 people in Georgia have been infected and nearly 16,000 have died.

COVID-19 came for Sardine over the summer. She coughed, ran a fever and ached. Struggling to breathe, Sardine tested positive and was hospitalized for five days. She got her first vaccine dose Monday but still worries she will get sick again. So she doesn’t leave the house often and has decided not to fly to her nephew’s wedding in Jamaica this month.

“I am afraid of people being around me — that they might have COVID-19 or I might contract it from them,” said Sardine, who has lost two cousins to the disease. “I don’t know who is sitting next to me and I know that I would have a panic attack.”

Can’t hold it all in

Adrick Ingram remembers fear and paranoia pulsing last year through Hancock County, a rural community 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. Residents often turn to Ingram, the county’s coroner and a funeral home director, for public health guidance. Some initially wondered if masks were effective, if COVID-19 was like the flu and, horrifically, if the disease was somehow a conspiracy to shrink the Black population. To combat misinformation, Ingram hosted an online discussion with a pair of doctors.

Then the trauma set in. More than 50 people in Hancock have died from COVID-19 and Ingram investigated many of the cases. During a funeral for a friend in June, Ingram found himself crying uncontrollably. His father, who’d also served as county coroner, had advised Ingram decades ago on compartmentalizing his feelings and focusing on grieving families.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Stress from the pandemic made that impossible. Realizing he needed help, Ingram consulted a pastor and took his wife and 7-year-old son to the beach for a long weekend. He is considering not running for another term as coroner.

“2020 was the first year that I really realized that I needed to take a break and pull back because it was so much,” said said Ingram, 44. “The workload increased but also the amount of stress that comes with walking into a situation where you could simply breathe something in and it could affect you and your family.”

‘The biggest blessing in the darkest time’

Kara Nash, 30, remembers the moment during that last normal week when her world upended. The pediatric nurse got an email from her father with the results of his latest medical scan: His pancreatic cancer had returned.

For Nash, who was 18 weeks pregnant when the world shut down, the pandemic was a complication as she prepared to become a mother and prioritized time with her father, Cliff Ramos, a former high school wrestling coach in Gwinnett. She welcomed a son, Ford, in August. She would say goodbye to her dad two months later.

“I feel like 2020 was really different for me than a lot of people because COVID wasn’t always my biggest concern,” she said. “If I was stressed about something, if I was excited or sad about something, it was because of Ford or my dad.”

Her newborn son, she said, “was the biggest blessing in the darkest time.”

Three generations under one roof

Katherine D’Alessandro was living in Boston when she and her husband saw the writing on the wall. Each day that final week of normalcy, they noticed fewer commuters on their walks to work from their home in Back Bay.

Once their companies went remote, the newlyweds decided to leave town for a while in case things took a turn and supplies became scarce. The first stop was her parents’ house in Maine, then Duluth to be with his widowed father.

ExploreMarch 12, 2020: The day the sports world shut down
Beatty D’Alessandro cradles his three-week-old grandson Dominic “Beatty” at their residence in Duluth. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Beatty D’Alessandro cradles his three-week-old grandson Dominic “Beatty” at their residence in Duluth. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

It was supposed to be temporary, but life intervened. A baby boy was on the way. And Atlanta, with its warmer weather and sparser population, was more accommodating to their pandemic lifestyle. Now, three generations of the Italian American family are sharing one roof for the first time in a century. D’Alessandro, 24, and her husband, 28, have continued working remotely at their Boston-based advertising and technology jobs, but Atlanta has started to feel like home.

“Every single decision since we found out we were pregnant, it just really felt like it all fell into place,” D’Alessandro said. “You just have to run with it, right? We’re happy with where we’ve landed.”

Father and son

Chris Crossen first saw the pandemic’s impact at work. Face masks became mandatory at the Dalton Police Department, where he is assistant chief. Officers began holding shift meetings in the parking lot.

His son’s middle school shut down and the rest of his son’s baseball season was canceled. Crossen helped coach his son’s team, just like his father, Roger, did when Crossen was a young athlete. Roger Crossen, a U.S. Army veteran who served on the Whitfield County Commission, died from COVID-19 in November. The Crossen family has since started the Roger Crossen Memorial Scholarship Fund. The first awards are expected to be announced this year.

For Chris Crossen, 48, his father’s death has reinforced the importance of showing people he loves them. He kisses his 14-year-old son, Sam, and tells him he loves him every chance he gets, just like his father did with him.

“He kissed me on my bald forehead,” Crossen recalled about his father, “and grabbed me up and would more than once tell me, ‘Your kids don’t ever get too old to do this. So don’t ever miss out on it.’”

In Other News