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Georgia has been open for a month—but returning to work is still complicated

Re-opening businesses Georgia complicated
For many, the decision to re-open hasn’t been easy, nor has the decision to return to work.

Photograph by adamkaz/Getty Images

As artist Barbara Kruger noted in a terse and sobering opinion piece for the New York Times: “A Corpse is Not a Customer.” (That’s all it says, literally.) To Kruger’s point, there has been no shortage of criticism of Governor Brian Kemp’s decision in late April to allow businesses to reopen before Georgia has shown a clear downward trend of new COVID-19 cases.

Earlier this month—almost two weeks after announcing his plan to ease statewide restrictions that shut down nonessential businesses for weeks—Kemp said Georgia is waging “two wars”: one a fight for Georgians’ health, the other for the health of its economy. Reopening aside, there are two primary weapons in the latter fight: unemployment benefits for out-of-work individuals and Paycheck Protection Program loans for businesses. Some critics say Kemp’s decision to reopen quickly has blunted both weapons.

In Georgia, the surge of unemployment claims was particularly severe. Nearly a third of the state’s workforce filed for unemployment between mid-March and early May, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s a much higher rate than the national average of 21 percent. “Probably the best explanation is just because we’re processing claims faster than other states,” Department of Labor Commissioner Mark Butler told Atlanta magazine in a recent interview.

With businesses allowed to reopen statewide, many Georgia workers were asked to return to work—and could be at risk of losing those benefits if they feel unsafe and prefer to stay home. Rachel Berlin Benjamin, an employment attorney with Buckley Beal, says her law firm has been “very busy” helping people navigate dilemmas like this amid the pandemic.

In Georgia, eligible unemployed workers can receive up to $365 per week from the state. Additionally, anyone eligible for state benefits also gets $600 weekly through the end of July from the federal government, thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in response to the outbreak.

Employees of workplaces that are reopening, Berlin Benjamin says, are able to refuse to return and continue to claim unemployment benefits if they—or anyone they might live with or care for—have contracted, are experiencing symptoms of, or might have been exposed to COVID-19, or if they’re immunocompromised or have a pre-existing condition such as asthma that puts them at higher risk of becoming severely ill from the virus. Employees who have to take care of children as the result of daycare or school closures would also still be eligible, she adds.

Additionally, employees could be eligible to collect benefits if their place of business is creating an unsafe work environment by shirking the safety recommendations from public health officials. “If you’re fearing for your life or the life of someone who resides with you, it really depends on what goes on in your workplace,” she says. But if a worker is simply fearful of getting sick by, say, waiting on a customer who might be carrying the disease, they’re likely out of luck.

In some cases, those who do go back to work can still claim unemployment benefits, assuming they can show their hours have been cut or their income is diminished. Some employers, Berlin Benjamin says, have been intentionally scheduling workers for fewer hours so they can still collect unemployment: “If you’ve been laid off, you can still earn $300 per week in a part-time job and receive full unemployment benefits.”

Alec Owen, a server at an Italian restaurant in Old Fourth Ward, told Atlanta he headed back to work this week, after weeks of receiving unemployment checks. The restaurant, which he asked not to name in the story so not to single out his employer, emailed its staff to notify them that management “is no longer filing unemployment insurance claims on behalf of us,” he says. “So, if someone does decline [to come back], they will have to refile for unemployment and see if they still qualify, which will be unlikely to happen for most people.”

Deciding whether to clock back in wasn’t easy, Owen says; he’s concerned about catching the virus. “But I do look forward to getting back to work and trying to safely return to some sort of normalcy.”

It’s not just workers who feel conflicted about returning to their jobs. Some business owners feel that they’re being forced to bring people back to work prematurely. That’s because the federal Paycheck Protection Program requires that, for the loans it hands out to be forgiven, a business must retain or hire back the vast majority of its workers—a particular challenge for shops, bars, and restaurants. “[The PPP] really wasn’t very well written for restaurants, because in order to get [forgiveness] you have to spend 75 percent of [the loan] on your payroll,” says Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. “In the restaurant industry, typically you spend about 30 percent on payroll, so the numbers don’t really make sense. It’s really one of the strangest processes I’ve ever seen.”

Some restaurants, Bremer says, have decided to return the money to avoid the red tape and bureaucratic confusion. When the PPP was launched, for instance, businesses that don’t qualify for loan forgiveness were supposed to be able to pay back the loans over a decade. Recently, though, that timeline has been reduced to just two years, according to Bremer.

Plenty of businesses have been soldiered on without PPP assistance. Little’s Food Store in Cabbagetown, for instance, quickly enacted safety precautions—employees wear masks and enforce social distancing measures—and kept slinging burgers and hotdogs. Owner Brad Cunard says he “didn’t feel comfortable” taking the loan, “even though it would have helped with uncertainty.”

“If it had been a simpler process,” he says, “we would have gone for it.”

Seven spots to get gelato in metro Atlanta

Honeysuckle Gelato
Honeysuckle Gelato is an Atlanta favorite.

Photograph courtesy of Honeysuckle Gelato

When I visited Napoli several summers ago, gelato was at the top of my must-eat list. I grabbed my husband and together we scouted out a gelateria along the seaside promenade. It was a short distance from the shop to a ledge that overlooked the rocky beaches speckled with sunbathers in Speedos. We quickly devoured the cold, silky gelato from our mini shovel-shaped spoons before the June heat could melt it away, but with the sparkling Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop, it was a postcard-worthy scene.

There’s a reason why gelato is so craveable and why Atlanta has had an influx of gelato shops in recent years. Compared to traditional ice cream, the Italian dessert is creamier, denser, and smoother, partly because it relies more on milk than cream and doesn’t use eggs yolks. Traditionally, it’s served at a warmer temperature than traditional ice cream, which allows the intense flavor to hit almost immediately.

It’ll be some time before any of us make it to Italy—the pandemic has halted the world’s travel plans—but, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to capture some of the magic through one of its greatest exports. Here are seven places to find great gelato scoops in metro Atlanta.

Honeysuckle Gelato
The creation of three friends—Jackson Smith, Wes Jones and Khatera Ballard—Honeysuckle adds a Southern twist on their gelato. Their stall in Ponce City Market (temporarily closed due to the pandemic) features flavors such as brown butter crunch and bourbon pecan praline. The spring flavor lineup includes creme brulee, honey lavender, and lemon basil blackberry.

Honeysuckle is currently selling pints and novelty treats (think gelato cakes and sorbet pops) out of their headquarters in the West End’s Lee + White development. 1024 White Street Southwest

Paolo’s Gelato
Italian native Paolo Dalla Zorza opened his eponymous gelato shop in Virginia-Highland 20 years ago. The cozy shop is filled with eclectic Italian decor and a cannoli bar in addition to their gelato case.

Once the pandemic began, they renovated their exterior to create a convenient takeout window. There are more than 60 flavors in the lineup, including cioccolato al latte (milk chocolate), zabaione (a custardy, marsala-forward flavor), and fruits of the forest (berries). 1025 Virginia Ave Northeast, 404-607-0055

This Avondale Estates shop is the brainchild of Meridith Ford, a former AJC food critic-turned-gelato maker (she used to oversee Novo Cucina’s program—more on them below), and features about a dozen rich, deeply flavored gelatos. The flavors rotate, but keep an eye out for Cherry Baby (cherry preserves and dark chocolate mixed into milky gelato), blueberry cheesecake, and Mexican hot chocolate. They also have have milkshakes (with or without booze) and cakes. The shop is set to re-open for patio-only seating on May 29. 2657 East College Avenue, Decatur, 404-578-2739

Dulce Artisan Gelato
Dulce Artisan Gelato

Photograph courtesy of Dulce Artisan Gelato

Dulce Artisan Gelato
Located in downtown Woodstock, Dulce prides itself on crafting small-batch gelato. Standout flavors here include brownie brittle, lemon cookie crunch, and Ferrero Roche—but the flavors change often. If you’re looking for something extra refreshing, they offer a sorbettini, a blend of tangy sorbet and sparkling water. The shop is currently open for both takeout and curbside pickup. 440 Chambers Street, Woodstock, 770-635-7644

Novo Cucina
A Dunwoody hotspot, everything is made in-house at this restaurant’s gelato bar. Standout flavors include coffee chocolate chip, strawberry, and a dark chocolate sorbet. If you need a caffeine buzz, try an affogato—a shot of espresso is poured over a scoop of gelato. Novo Cucina recently reopened their sunroom with limited seating. 5592 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody, 470-275-3000

Voga Gelato
This Inman Quarter shop—currently only open for takeout—has flavors including black cherry, pistachio, and vanilla bourbon. In addition to scoops, they have Belgian waffles and crepes if you want to pair your gelato with warm carbs. 299 North Highland Avenue Northeast, 470-875-5637

Popbar gelato pops

Photograph courtesy of Popbar

New York transplant Popbar opened in Alpharetta’s Halcyon development this past September. They closed temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic, but have since reopened for curbside, takeout, and delivery from Thursday through Sunday each week. As the name suggests, the gelato is served in pop form. Choose your flavor (snickerdoodle and salted caramel are popular options), a dip (milk, dark, or white chocolate) and then top it off with a crunchy topping like pistachios, sprinkles, hazelnuts, or pretzels. 6710 Town Square, Alpharetta, 470-294-2910

Atlanta’s latest coronavirus updates: Wednesday, May 27

Atlanta coronavirus update
A food distribution event at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on April 17. Metro Atlanta’s school systems have announced plans to help keep students fed as summer arrives.

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Tuesday, school systems discussed plans for the fall. Here’s your Wednesday morning update:

• As of publication time, a total of 44,275 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Georgia. 1,899 people have died. 518,591 tests (virus and antibody) have been conducted. A total of 7,647 of those tested were hospitalized at the time. [GA Dept. of Public Health]

• As the school year ends, some school systems are looking at ways to keep students in need fed during the summer. Atlanta Public Schools will distribute 60,000 meals in June to students who participate in Horizons, Breakthrough, or the Boys and Girls Club. Marietta City Schools will offer free breakfast and lunch to any child under 18, with pickup available at nine different locations. The program will run through the end of July. [11 Alive/AJC]

• Meanwhile in the world of higher ed, the University System of Georgia is looking at multiple scenarios: in-person classes with social distancing, fully online classes, or online classes for some of the year. For in-person classes, 11 Alive reports, the system is looking at having a staggered return to campus. And even with online classes, students may be allowed to return to residence halls. You can read the full planning document here. [11 Alive]

• Cobb County commissioners voted to distribute $50 million in federal COVID-19 aid to small businesses in the county. Businesses with less than 100 full-time employees will be eligible to apply for a cash grant. [AJC]

• If you’re looking for an interesting data dashboard to examine, the New York Times is tracking COVID-19 cases internationally. Here is their Georgia dashboard, which has some fairly interesting metrics, including how fast or slow the case growth rate is over time and looking at cases by share of population. For example, in Fulton County, about 1 in every 242 people has tested positive for COVID-19. 1 in 4,889 has died from COVID-19. [NYT]

• When will movies and TV shows start filming again? Pinewood Atlanta Studios president Frank Patterson is guessing sometime in the fall, at least for his studio, WABE reports. The state film office last week issued an 11-page guideline booklet for those in the industry, which includes recommendations such as reducing the amount of extras used, axing fruit or snack bowls from craft services, and holding remote casting calls. Tyler Perry Studios is set to resume production on two TV series in early July, where actors and crew will be tested upon arrival and multiple times during the planned two-and-a-half week shoot. [WABE/GA Film Office/Variety]

• Six Flags continues to prepare for an eventual re-opening, releasing new safety guidelines for visitors. All patrons over the age of 2 will be required to wear a mask at all times, with the exception of some areas in the water park. Visitors and employees will have their temperature taken before entry and social distancing will be required throughout the park, with markers placed in line areas and rows blocked off on rides to keep distance between riders. The park will also operate at a lower capacity. The park has not yet set a date for re-opening. You can read the full guidelines here. [Six Flags]

• The Trap Music Museum is set to re-open on June 5, with all patrons required to wear masks and temperature checks required before entry. [11 Alive]

• The High Museum of Art has announced it will re-open for High members and frontline workers on July 7 and to the public on July 17. [AJC]

JJ’s Flower Shop offers new ways to buy blooms

JJ’s Flower Shop
“Bev,” the floral truck

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

Sometimes, store-bought or readymade bouquets aren’t quite right, so you toss the fern filler here, snip a stem down there, and rearrange it more to your liking. Building your own bouquet just the way you want is the premise of JJ’s Flower Shop, which operates both out of a storefront at Ponce City Market and the back of a spiffy 1968 Volkswagen drop-side pick-up truck named Bev.

Owner Sarah Donjuan had little floral experience—beyond deconstructing and rearranging the bouquets her then boyfriend (now husband) bought her—when she launched JJ’s in 2018, named for her Goldendoodle. She had a business degree, a marketing job, and an interest in flowers and doing something entrepreneurial. Just looking for a side hustle at the time, Donjuan did her research, bought the truck in California, and launched with a create-your-own-bouquet mobile pop-up on weekends. Six months later, she quit her day job and opened her brick-and-mortar shop.

“I knew there were a lot of floral companies with an events-based business, and I wanted to do something different,” she says. “I’m not a professional florist. I just saw a gap in the market and thought it would be fun, so I figured it out.”

The beauty of JJ’s is that everything is priced by the stem—starting at just a buck—so you can mix and match or buy as little as one bloom for a sweet souvenir.

Now, Donjuan employs a lead floral designer and shop manager, plus four assistants. At its Ponce City Market location, JJ’s also offers readymade and custom arrangements and conducts monthly workshops on flower arranging and, like more typical florists, offers same-day delivery and wedding florals. From March through September, floral truck Bev rolls around town, making stops at markets and shopping centers like Avalon and the Shops Buckhead Atlanta, and can be hired for private parties. Should events remain on pause, take advantage of JJ’s flower subscription service and regularly refresh your blooms without ever leaving the house.

JJ’s Flower Shop

Build a bouquet

“We encourage thrillers, fillers, and greenery,” says Sarah Donjuan of JJ’s Flower Shop, referring to the age-old recipe of combining a tall, big, or bright statement flower with smaller accent blooms and greens.

1. Envision a color palette or a theme. “Decide if you’re going for neutral, bright, moody. It helps establish a creative direction,” says Donjuan. “We chose a vibrant, tropical palette for this arrangement.”

2. Use a piece of greenery as a base. “Greenery holds everything together and helps form the overall shape of the arrangement,” she says. This bouquet is anchored by pointy-leafed ruscus.

3. Pick your focal point (aka your thriller). This one features a pincushion protea.

4. Shape it. “We love an asymmetrical shape,” says Donjuan. Two longer-cut roses and a carnation—a flower Donjuan insists is “back”—create an ever-so-slightly off-kilter balance.

5. Finish with filler and more greenery. Billy balls, mimosa, dried lunaria, and the rest of the ruscus are tucked in, cut at varying heights, with the yellow billy balls acting as exclamation points.

This article appears in our May 2020 issue.

Atlanta’s latest coronavirus updates: Tuesday, May 26

Atlanta coronavirus updates
People talk as they stand amongst the graves in Marietta National Cemetery on May 25, Memorial Day. The pandemic canceled the cemetery’s usual events but a small group arrived to lay a wreath and pay respects.

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

During the holiday weekend, Georgians took to the great outdoors. Here’s your Tuesday morning update:

• As of publication time, a total of 43,586 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Georgia. 1,853 people have died. 514,945 tests (virus and antibody) have been conducted. A total of 7,511 of those tested were hospitalized at the time. [GA Dept. of Public Health]

• During Memorial Day weekend, many Georgians took to the lakes, according to the AJC, who quoted the manager of Lake Allatoona’s Little River Marina as saying “he had never seen so many families head to the lake for the holiday.” Beaches and parks also saw a lot of visitors, while malls were still less crowded than normal, the AJC reports. Some ceremonies to honor veterans were also still held on Monday; at Marietta National Cemetery, where the annual remembrance event was officially canceled, a small group gathered to lay a wreath and pay respects. Cemetery director James Mitchum was in attendance and told the AJC it was a “powerful” experience. Dunwoody and Woodstock held virtual Memorial Day ceremonies. [AJC/Marietta Daily Journal/WSB-TV]

• A 17-year-old has become the state’s youngest COVID-19 victim. The Georgia Department of Public Health confirmed the death of the Fulton County teenager, who had an underlying condition, on Sunday. Way back in early April, it was reported that an 11-year-old was Georgia’s youngest COVID-19 victim, but that was later reported as an error. [WSB-TV/Fox 5]

• The TSA has released new guidelines in anticipation of summer travel, among them: travelers will no longer give boarding passes to the TSA agent but will instead scan the passes themselves and hold them up for the TSA agent to visually check. Passengers are also asked to put any carry-on foods into a clear plastic bag and put the bag directly on the bin. This is because, as anyone who has traveled with snacks well knows, food often triggers a bag check. Fewer bag checks means fewer TSA agents touching your stuff. For the same reason, they’re also asking travelers to be extra cautious of having any prohibited items in carry-on luggage (like a full water bottle). Travelers are allowed to have one container with up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, but it must be put in the tray directly. Read the full list of guidelines here. [TSA]

• Several Old Fourth Ward businesses have agreed to a tiered pledge that incorporates guidelines from both Governor Brian Kemp’s executive orders and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s reopening plan for Atlanta. Eater Atlanta broke down what this means for the restaurants who have signed on, including many of the Edgewood Avenue bars. Some of the guidelines include keeping music low so that patrons and employees can hear each other better through masks and keeping doors and windows open as much as possible. [O4W Business Association/Eater Atlanta]

Atlanta’s latest coronavirus updates: Saturday, May 23

Atlanta coronavirus updates
Park-goers at Centennial Olympic Park on May 2

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Friday, Vice President Pence visited Atlanta and Fulton County’s absentee ballot applications are backed up. Here’s your Saturday morning update:

• As of publication time, a total of 41,482 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Georgia. 1,808 people have died. 427,249 tests have been conducted. A total of 7,376 of those tested were hospitalized at the time. [GA Dept. of Public Health]

• If you haven’t gotten your absentee ballot yet in Fulton County yet, you’re likely not alone. The AJC reports the county has a 25,000 ballot application backlog that it is trying to get through by Memorial Day. Richard Barron, the director of registration and elections for Fulton County, told the AJC that ballots should arrive sometime during the week of June 1, but Election Day is the following Tuesday, June 9. To be counted, a ballot must arrive at the county election office (not just be postmarked) by 7 p.m. on June 9, so voters who get ballots late may want to consider dropping their ballots in one of the county’s drop boxes. (The county has a drop box location finder here.) [AJC]

• Vice President Mike Pence dined with Governor Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp at Star Cafe, praising Georgia’s re-opening efforts and saying that “history will record that Georgia helped lead the way back to a prosperous American economy,” the AJC reports. Pence also participated in round-table discussion at the Waffle House headquarters and visited the late Ravi Zacharias’s ministry. And in a rare moment of complete normalcy, his motorcade also snarled traffic on I-75. [AJC]

• If you’ve been following the news, you’ve likely heard a lot about the Georgia Department of Health’s COVID-19 data dashboard and its various controversies. And if you’ve tried to just follow the data yourself, you may have found yourself confused or frustrated at just how difficult it can be to get a clear picture of what’s happening right now. We explored why coronavirus data is so difficult to communicate clearly (lag time and the virus’s lengthy incubation period have a lot to do with it) and how we can better understand and distribute it.

• Food insecurity is still a major issue of the pandemic, as long lines of cars proved in DeKalb County yesterday during a drive-thru food giveaway. At one giveaway in Clarkston, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond told the AJC that 500 cars had lined up 90 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin. The Atlanta Community Food Bank also told the paper it has seen a 30-40 percent increase in the amount of people getting food from banks and drives. DeKalb spent $40,000 on the food, which was purchased from South Georgia farmers. [AJC]

• How do you host an album release party in the middle of a pandemic? For rapper Skooly, it included a documentary screening and album streaming at Starlight Drive-In. Freelance writer Christina Lee went to the party and found that while there weren’t a ton of masks or social distancing, there was an outpouring of love for Skooly and a desire for a sense of normalcy. Read her full story for us here.

• Sports and Social and the Tavern, both part of Live! At the Battery Atlanta, will re-open on May 28 and plan to bring back outdoor live entertainment on the weekends. [WSB]

• Hamilton fans have to wait for it even longer—Broadway Across Atlanta announced the Fox Theatre’s run of the show, which was moved from spring to this August, has now been pushed a year to August 24 through September 26, 2021. [AJC]

• Please remember to be safe while enjoying this Memorial Day—both the mayor’s office and CDC advise that people continue social distancing and wearing face masks in public. The AJC has a list of safety tips and information on popular attractions in including Piedmont Park, Stone Mountain Park, coastal destinations, and lakes. [AJC]

Skooly’s pandemic album release party didn’t feel like a pandemic event

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Waiting for the documentary to start

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

The medical and music industries might be currently debating whether there’s a safe way to throw shows during a pandemic, and Georgia’s live performance venues, nightclubs, and bars are closed through at least the end of the month, as ordered by Governor Brian Kemp. But Atlanta rapper Skooly, whose first taste of Billboard success was 2009’s “My Patna Dem” (as part of the group Rich Kidz), still had a new album to promote.

On Thursday, Skooly invited fans to Starlight Drive-In to preview Nobody Likes Me hours before its midnight release. One of Starlight’s screens showed a short documentary, as fans listened the album in its entirety through their car radios. Skooly announced the event Monday, the same day the state of Arkansas hosted America’s first pandemic concert, with capacity reduced by 80 percent. The promo flyer acknowledged the awkward timing for an album drop: “Come enjoy new music from Skooly the safest way possible: from your car.” But the release party didn’t feel like a pandemic event, not with the large show of support and near-complete lack of face masks.

By 8 p.m., fans driving Honda Civics, Dodge Chargers, and an Hyundai Infiniti G37S with a “HUNCHO” license plate spent up to 20 minutes waiting to drive barely 500 feet to Starlight’s entrance. One security guard wore a Skooly-branded balaclava. But when a driver asked him for instructions, he peeled it off halfway to actually speak. Another unmasked member of Skooly’s street team handed out commemorative Styrofoam cups and popcorn boxes. People pulled into the lot and formed makeshift rows across parking spots facing the single screen airing the documentary. It was up to the crowd to keep a safe distance, whether between cars or from other human beings.

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Lines of cars wait to enter Starlight Drive-In.

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
A member of Skooly’s team hands out promotional cups and popcorn buckets.

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In AtlantaAnd when left to their own devices, in the 90 minutes they spent waiting for the event to begin, the crowd didn’t. People wandered around the lot. They sat on their car hoods and rooftops, taking in the clear skies. They mingled to cars blasting Skooly’s breakout hits from when he was part of Rich Kidz, and making the 25-year-old rapper “the living thread that connects trap and ‘ringtone rap’ to the viscous sing-song variety of today,” as Briana Younger wrote for Pitchfork in 2018. At sunset, the scene—mostly 20-somethings who likely remember when Rich Kidz was discovered by T.I.’s Grand Hustle at Club Crucial ten years ago—was as breezy and relaxed as an American Eagle ad.

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
The snack bar was closed, but the event featured a food truck for fans.

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Fans at the Nobody Likes Me release party

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

Skooly also didn’t acknowledge the current health crisis. The venue choice also didn’t feel like a concession, not when 2 Chainz—who signed Skooly to his T.R.U. imprint in 2015—specializes in this sort of publicity stunt, like the Pink Trap House for 2017’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. In the short documentary, seemingly before shelter-at-home policies began in Georgia, family friends in Bankhead, where Skooly grew up, vouch for how he was the first to make trap music go melodic—a gripe of his since he went solo five years ago. The sullen Nobody Likes Me is another bid for this former child star to be taken seriously as a grown artist and 2020 XXL Freshman Class contender. He breaks apart the pop-R&B-rap fusion that made him famous at 15, going toe-to-toe with Lil Baby one moment (“Neva Know”) and crooning to a harp in another (“Genocide”), as if to show versatility.

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Skooly on top of a car at the Nobody Likes Me album release party

Photograph by Nali/E&C Photography

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Fans lining up to see Skooly

Photograph by Joshua Smith/E&C Photography

After the screen faded to black, the true celebration began, as Skooly popped up below for an impromptu meet-and-greet. A video camera trailed him as fans cheered him on. A few yards away, near Starlight’s still-closed snack bar, about two dozen fans—almost none of them masked—started singing and dancing to songs spanning his career, like his feature on the late Bankroll Fresh’s “Take Over Your Trap.”

Skooly Nobody Likes Me release party Starlight Drive In Atlanta
Skooly sporting a Louis Vuitton-print face mask

Photograph by Nali/E&C Photography

This was a sign that Skooly doesn’t need to seek out validation in his hometown. But it also confirmed our current state with coronavirus. On paper, socially distanced concerts are a necessary compromise for a live music industry that essentially shut down when the pandemic began and for artists who rely on money-making tours in the age of marginal streaming royalties. But with all this fanfare, Skooly and his followers made clear they didn’t want a new normal. The night’s biggest selling point was recalling a time before self-quarantine. It was pure nostalgia.

Why is coronavirus data so damn difficult to communicate?

Coronavirus data Georgia why is it so difficult
A drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Los Angeles. Virus test results, collected in Georgia at sites like this one, have recently been mixed with antibody test results on the state’s data dashboard, leading to more confusion among Georgians looking for information about COVID-19.

Photograph by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

TJ Muehleman is from Texas, but he has family in Louisiana, lived in Georgia for years, and now resides in Seattle. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he began to notice big differences in the ways data was presented by each of the states he’s called home. And he noticed something else about Georgia’s data in particular: it was a mess.

As co-founder of Standard Co, a company that builds public health data visualization platforms, it’s Muehleman’s job to find areas for improvement in charts and graphs. But the problems with the Georgia Department of Health’s data dashboard seemed particularly dangerous, he says, because of the life-and-death decisions business owners and others were making based on the data presented.

As a side project, Muehleman created the Covid Mapping Project, a website that displays simple charts describing the same key metrics from each state. And as he’s watched each of Georgia’s widely reported data fiascos play out, he has had increasing opportunity to reflect on the cause. “I don’t think anything nefarious is happening,” he says. “I just don’t think they know what they’re doing.”

That was his reaction last week, when a bewildering chart displaying county-level data in nonchronological order elicited widespread jeering. The chart in question showed case totals arranged from highest to lowest; Muehleman speculates that “somebody, somewhere, said, I want to know what have been the worst days in the past month” and that graphic was the result. The chart was quickly revised to reflect chronological order, and a spokesperson for Governor Brian Kemp acknowledged the visual was problematic and apologized. But the state’s website was again pilloried on Wednesday after the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported the total testing numbers it displayed mixed tests for the virus and antibody tests, artificially lowering Georgia’s positive test rate. Combining these two tests in figures has been an issue in several states—even the CDC has followed the practice, although the agency also recently announced it would stop doing so.

Communicating clear, easy to read data to the public is perhaps one of the most pervasive problems during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You have a lot of very smart people producing really neat visualizations that other professionals might understand,” Muehleman says, “but the general public is like, What the hell am I looking at? I just want to know if it’s getting better or worse.”

But it’s not that easy to tell—at least, not in real time. As governments worldwide wrangle data in an effort to thoughtfully re-open economies, they all must reckon with an intrinsic quality of the COVID-19 outbreak: because it takes so long for a single person to go from getting infected to being counted by the state where they live, there’s no great way to know the pandemic’s immediate trajectory. But data scientists say there are good and bad ways to forecast the pandemic’s path, share the data they use—and, as that much-maligned chart demonstrated—clearly communicate how they use information to make critical decisions.

Not all of Georgia’s data problems are man-made; no matter who is making public health policy, a number of days will inevitably elapse between the time a person becomes infected with the coronavirus and the time their infection turns up on a health department’s website. To start, there’s the period between the moment a viral particle enters someone’s body and the moment they first start feeling sick, which usually takes around five days but can take as long as two weeks. Once a person starts feeling sick, it could take days before they are tested for COVID-19, then additional days for the test to actually be processed at a laboratory. The laboratory must then communicate the result to the state (more days) before the state can include that person’s infection in its counts.

When the state is finally notified about a COVID-19-infection, it adds the case to the numbers it displays on the dashboard using the date the infected person first felt sick. That means “new” cases usually show up as occurring several weeks in the past, before the state was notified. (There are exceptions: if the state receives a case report that’s missing the date of symptom onset, it instead substitutes the test date or the date they received the result.) So today’s case counts are the lowest point of a rolling wave that won’t crest until it’s well out of reach, which could give the public a false sense of security.

Georgia denotes this time lag is an unreliable basis for decisions by displaying newer data as dots rather than a line on its chart of daily case counts. But that’s probably not enough to prevent observers from becoming confused, says Muehleman: “until we shorten that time lag, onset is a problematic indicator to the general public,” even if it is a useful one for health officials, he says.

While the data will never be perfect and the data lag cannot be completely eliminated, there are better ways to communicate uncertainty, convey what we do know, and do most other things the cluttered and confusing Georgia dashboard attempts to do, Muehleman says. He points to Louisiana’s data dashboard, where a chart tracking new cases only displays data more than 12 days old. He also likes Alabama’s, which lists positive cases by the day their test result was confirmed, shortening its data lag.

J.C. Bradbury, an economist and data analyst at Kennesaw State University, sees additional problems with Georgia’s dashboard. Among his frustrations is that the most useful data isn’t all reported in the same place. “The governor keeps mentioning the number of people currently hospitalized” with COVID-19, he says, a metric that to him seems like a promising indicator of current disease prevalence. (That number recently went below 1,000 for the first time since the first surge of cases.) But that figure is published by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) in a PDF document under the “Situation Report” section of the agency’s coronavirus site—not on the health department’s dashboard. That metric should be front and center among the data the health department shares, says Bradbury.

Another key change both Bradbury and Muehleman would like to see on the state’s dashboard is more information on each case included in the downloadable raw data set that they and other scientists use to understand pandemic dynamics in Georgia, including the date each person who tested positive was suspected to have been exposed, the date each case sample was obtained, and the date each test was run. They also wish the state would prominently display the number of newly confirmed cases each day, much the way the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s data dashboard does—they both calculate this figure independently using the state’s raw data because it is subject to less data lag than the existing metrics displayed.

In addition to running his own calculations, Muehleman also makes daily visits to the Covid Tracking Project, a volunteer-run website created by The Atlantic magazine.

There are other data sources that may emerge as useful indicators of real-time COVID-19 prevalence in the future—such as where fevers are reported (measured by smart thermometers) or flu-like symptoms (reported by doctors)—but none of these have yet been established as reliable indicators of whether the pandemic is getting better or worse at any given moment.

For now, Bradbury says, people making daily decisions about what they can safely do should look at their county’s daily growth in newly confirmed cases and new deaths—metrics he calculates himself and tweets out each day. (Data reported by each county’s respective health department can also be found here: Fulton; DeKalb; Cobb/Douglas; Gwinnett/Newton/Rockdale; Clayton.) Changes in these numbers give him some sense of whether transmission is getting worse or better in his general area. On Thursday, he tweeted an ominous caption alongside his usual graphics: “Fulton had so many deaths, I had to add another category.”

Atlanta’s latest coronavirus updates: Friday, May 22

Atlanta Coronavirus updates
Historic Fourth Ward Park on May 10

Photograph by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Thursday, Atlanta’s mayor released a five-phase plan for re-opening. Here’s your Friday morning update:

• As of publication time, a total of 41,127 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Georgia. 1,783 people have died. 427,249 tests have been conducted. A total of 7,294 of those tested were hospitalized at the time. [GA Dept. of Public Health]

• Nearly a month after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created a task force on re-opening the city, the mayor’s office has released a five-phase plan. Bottoms says the city is currently in phase one, “Stay at Home,” which asks residents to stay home except for essential trips, wear face masks, wash hands frequently, and maintain social distancing. The criteria to reach phase two, “Easing”—which will add to the previous guidelines allowing small, private gatherings of no more than 10 people with social distancing—is a 14-day decline in cases, hospitalizations, and percent of positive COVID-19 tests. Hospital and critical care capacity also has to stay above 50 percent. The mayor’s office released a data dashboard for May 20 that shows the city well on its way to phase two, meeting all of those criteria except for the decline in case counts, which was at 11 days. (The data from the dashboard was collected from the Fulton County Board of Public Health and Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency.) Read the full re-opening plan here. [City of Atlanta]

• Georgia saw a record high of 11.9 percent unemployment for the month of April, topping the previous record of 10.6 percent set in December 2010. (Last April, it was 3.6 percent.) “About 580,000 Georgians were officially jobless, more than during the weakest labor market in the wake of the Great Recession,” the AJC reports. The state processed 202,522 claims last week. In the past nine weeks, the state has processed more than 2 million claims, which is more than the past five years combined. [Department of Labor/AJC]

• Vice President Mike Pence will visit Georgia today to see how the state is faring post-re-opening. He’s set to have lunch with Governor Brian Kemp before a round-table discussion with restaurant executives at Waffle House’s corporate headquarters. Senator Kelly Loeffler will join Pence on Air Force Two. [AJC]

• After the governor’s office said it would ask the state to stop including COVID-19 antibody tests in the total testing figure, the CDC has also said it will separate out its figures for antibody testing and virus testing. Several other states who were combining the figures have also said they will stop. [WSB-TV]

• Following the announcement that Wellstar would be furloughing employees, Emory Healthcare has announced plans to furlough and cut hours for up to 1,500 employees. The healthcare system expects a $660 million revenue shortfall through August, 11 Alive reports, due to lack of surgeries and other non-COVID-19-related procedures. [11 Alive]

• Tenants at Ponce City Market are scheduled to begin re-opening today, among them: El Super Pan, W.H. Stiles Fish Camp, Brezza Cucina, and Lucky Lotus. The Roof and its restaurants are also open. Ponce City Market employees are required to wear masks and patrons are asked to wear them as well. [Eater Atlanta]

Atlanta’s latest coronavirus updates: Thursday, May 21

Atlanta coronavirus updates
A drive-thru testing sit in Jericho, New York.

Photograph by Al Bello/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the state received more criticism for how it presents its COVID-19 data. Here’s your Thursday morning update:

• As of publication time, a total of 40,157 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Georgia. 1,724 people have died. 404,207 tests have been conducted. A total of 7,194 of those tested were hospitalized at the time. [GA Dept. of Public Health]

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer broke a surprising story yesterday—a state Department of Public Health official confirmed to the paper that the number of COVID-19 tests the state reports daily, currently listed as more than 400,000, includes both COVID-19 tests and antibody tests. The governor’s office has since requested that the antibody testing numbers be removed from the overall testing figure, according to the AJC, with public health commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey telling the paper, “I didn’t fully appreciate how many antibody tests have been done.” 57,000 antibody tests were included in the state’s testing figure, about 14 percent of the figure, the AJC concluded.

Dr. Harry J. Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State’s School of Public Health, told the Ledger-Enquirer that combining the tests is like “putting apples and oranges together and calling them oranges.” He continued, “If anything, it skews those numbers to make it appear like the level of disease relative to testing is actually dropping much more dramatically than it is.” It also changes the figures for how many COVID-19 tests the state is actually performing. As the AJC notes, the state was previously considered 20th in the nation for the amount of testing per capita we were doing. Removing the antibody tests bumps us down to 29th. The problem hasn’t only occurred in Georgia—officials in Virginia also recently announced they would stop including antibody tests in their totals. [Ledger-Enquirer/AJC]

• The CDC has released some preliminary guidelines for schools, noting that operating a school as usual is considered the “highest risk” for spreading COVID-19; the lowest risk is virtual learning, and in the middle involves smaller classes with kids staying in the same classroom and staying six feet apart. Among the suggestions for preventing spread in schools: having students and faculty wear masks whenever possible (the CDC admits this will be difficult for younger children), increased cleaning and disinfecting, avoiding sharing items as much as possible, spacing desks six-feet apart if possible, having desks all face the same direction, spacing out students on the bus if possible, creating one-way hallways, closing cafeterias and playgrounds if possible (stagger use if not), and having students eat lunch (preferably brought from home) in classrooms. Most Atlanta schools have not yet announced their plans for the fall. [CDC]

• Public restrooms have never been known for being a bastion of cleanliness, but now researchers are finding that the coronavirus can be found in feces for up to 30 days after a person recovers from COVID-19, WSB-TV reports. How does this affect you? Well, according the president of the American Restroom Association, when you flush a public toilet, which almost never has a lid, it shoots up a water plume that can contain fecal matter. The ARA president told WSB-TV that no COVID-19 cases have been connected to toilet flushing, but it makes single-person restrooms an even more attractive option. Otherwise, the usual advice applies: wash your hands, and don’t touch your face. [WSB-TV]

• The temporary hospital at GWCC—constructed in mid-April to hold non-critical COVID-19 patients—is wrapping up. Only 17 patients were treated at the 200-bed facility, with the last patient discharged on Tuesday. Rather than being dismantled immediately, the hospital space will sit “dormant” for the next few weeks, just in case it’s needed, the AJC reports. [AJC]

• The city of Tucker will pass out 500 free masks today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Rehoboth Baptist Church and 500 more masks on Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at NETWorks Cooperative Ministry. [WSB]

• While it’s likely we could see many canceled Fourth of July celebrations, the city of Kennesaw has announced it will postpone its Salute to America, originally scheduled for July 3, to September 12. [AJC]

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