Black-tie optional, safety measures a must as fall charity season begins

Caution is key as in-person events return

At the upcoming Garden of Eden Ball, black ties are optional but vaccination is mandatory.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Sept. 25 event, chaired by Lizzie and John Crawford and honoring Mopsy and Doug Aldridge, will be held in a tent outfitted with a filtration system. Instead of the usual post-dinner dancing, entertainers Musical Fantasy will take the stage.

“All guests are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19,” event information notes. “For the safety of guests and staff, the Atlanta Botanical Garden will continue to monitor new developments regarding COVID variants and will keep you abreast of any adjustments we may need to make to the event.”

Credit: Ben Rose

Credit: Ben Rose

After the pandemic sidelined many fundraisers in 2020, Atlanta’s cultural institutions and charitable organizations have been excited to welcome supporters back to in-person events this year. But news of rising cases and hospitals again at capacity due to the renewed surge means organizers must be creative and cautious as the fall social season kicks off.

“The No. 1 priority is to ensure we keep our guests safe,” said Justine Boyd, spokesperson for the 2021 UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball – Atlanta. “We have decreased the number of guests from 1,200 to 600. We are looking at shortening the program so the time we spend together will be much less. We realize one of the worst things we could do would be to be a superspreader.”

The Dec. 18 event at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, co-chaired by Bentina Terry and Charmaine Ward-Millner and hosted by outgoing Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, honors Charles Johnson and Andrea Carter.

“Masks will be mandatory - we’re the masked ball anyway,” said Boyd, the regional development director for the Atlanta region of UNCF.

MORE: Get vaccinated, save lives

Several organizations plan outside events while the weather is still warm.

“The arts are very nimble and organizations have the creativity to bend and flex to do whatever’s needed,” said Anne Dennington, executive director of Flux Projects, which stages temporary art projects. The guest list at an upcoming reception will be capped at about 100, whereas gatherings in the past have drawn twice as many. Masks will be encouraged at the outdoor event and guests will sip canned cocktails to eliminate the usual congregating around the bar.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/

“We are lucky in that our events lend themselves well to outdoor (settings),” Dennington said. “We’re just kind of adding that extra level of thoughtfulness to it.”

The Atlanta History Center, too, is heading outdoors for its Oct. 22 Swan House Ball. Chaired by Roz Brewer, Vicki Palmer and Jack Sawyer, the event honors philanthropist Lovette Russell.

Credit: Kimberly Evans

Credit: Kimberly Evans

“This year’s event will be held outside in the Swan House Gardens, and we’ll continue to monitor safety guidance as the event draws closer,” said Claire Haley, vice president of public relations and programs. “We’re excited to continue the tradition of hosting the event at the Swan House while keeping guest safety as our top priority.”

Moving in the Spirit, a youth development program that combines dance instruction with leadership training, moved into a new facility in March 2020, a month that began with the first publicly confirmed cases of coronavirus in Georgia and ended with 125 confirmed COVID deaths and the temporary shutting of schools, businesses, government offices, and venues like the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coca Cola among other facilities.

More than a year later, Moving in the Spirit still hasn’t yet been able to host a grand opening celebration.

“We’ve been very conservative, wanting to make sure we’re protecting our community — our staff members, our families, our children and our donors,” said Shalondra Henry, the group’s director of strategy and expansion. “We did not do any events in person last year.”

During a virtual gathering last year hosted by Condace Pressley, Derin Dickerson and Dai Delatte, supporters were able to watch masked dancers perform through their screens. The fall fundraising calendar includes outdoor events such as golf tournaments. A veteran in the philanthropy field, Henry sees the value in getting folks together.

“It makes a huge difference to be able to see the impact up close and personal, to be able to have conversations with people who are involved with the program,” she said. “There’s nothing like seeing a face light up in the moment. There’s something about being with someone and feeling energy from them as opposed to a screen.”

Indeed, patrons at Heroes, Saints & Legends, which raises funds for meals and housing, wellness programming and pastoral care for the senior residents of Wesley Woods communities, did seem especially happy to gather at its recent event. Last year’s gala, like so many others, had to be postponed.

“I think this is the first time I’ve been out in 17 months,” quipped emcee Scott Slade. “Can you think of a better reason?”

Guests at the event, chaired by Lillian Budd Darden and honoring Phil Jacobs, Bishop Woodie White and Dr. Allen Ecker, wore masks when they weren’t eating or drinking. The ballroom at Flourish, where it was held, was open even during the cocktail hour to allow for ample distancing and mini bottles of hand sanitizer were tucked in with every place setting.

“I don’t know about you but it’s so nice to see real faces,” Jacobs said.

In addition to applauding the night’s honorees, guests offered a rousing ovation for the masked and gloved Flourish staff members.

“We have all been masked up all during COVID for all events we do,” said Tony Conway of Legendary Events, which operates Flourish.

Looking ahead, event planners say they’ll need to remain flexible. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia exceeds 1.1 million, while only 44 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Coronavirus has claimed about 20,000 lives in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

“At the beginning of March (2020) I was calling my clients and having conversations about COVID in medically fragile communities,” said Sean O’Keefe of Sean O’Keefe Events. Events he was planning on, such as the Georgia Ovarian Cancer Alliance’s Shaken, Not Stirred Gala, were early casualties of the pandemic. He pivoted to virtual offerings, creating high-quality broadcast production for sleek presentations, and contemplates the fall social calendar with a wary eye.

“Because we had a taste of freedom, people went nuts,” he sighed, noting that he and his partner traveled to Macon in April 2020 to get vaccinated the instant they were eligible. “I don’t know what the next month looks like. I know everyone I know in this industry is scared.”

- Scott Trubey contributed to this report.