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Making of a legend: A new John Lewis documentary explores his many heroic stands

John Lewis: Good Trouble
“Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965

Photograph Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

There is a moment in John Lewis: Good Trouble, a new documentary about Georgia’s most famous congressman, that captures the uncertainty and anxiety of the early days of the civil rights movement. A young Lewis is sitting on the banks of a peaceful lake with two fellow members of the Nashville Student Movement, which organized sit-ins throughout that city to protest segregated lunch counters. The year is 1960. The decade ahead of these young men—boys, really—will be marked with beatings, bombings, assassinations. Their parents are worried for their children. Bernard Lafayette, one of Lewis’s compatriots, reads a letter from his mother.

“What are you fighting for?” Lafayette’s mother writes. “Remember who are helping you. It is the white people. What about the people of your race? What have they given you?”

Lafayette clutches his forehead in frustration. “I know she cares for me. I know she loves me. But she just don’t understand.”

 

Where do fighters such as these come from? Good Trouble, which is scheduled to premiere in Atlanta theaters and through digital platforms on July 3 (it was postponed from May due to the COVID-19 pandemic), is ostensibly a documentary about Lewis—who had his skull cracked in 1965 by Alabama police on the Edmund Pettus bridge, who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, who has been arrested more than 40 times in acts of civil disobedience, who has been a champion for justice in almost every major moral battle this country has fought in the past six decades, in addition to serving in Congress since 1987. But because it explores Lewis’s life, it is also, by necessity, a contemplation of heroism and sacrifice, by people like him who came from the humblest of origins.

Lewis was an Alabama sharecropper’s son, but as his siblings explain in Good Trouble, there was something about John that was just . . . different. “I could tell that he felt the world was bigger than what we were doing,” one of Lewis’s brothers says in the film. “He had bigger things in mind.” Lewis would practice sermons to the chickens on his parents’ farm in Troy, but he hated picking cotton. He took a teacher’s advice to read everything, he wore a tie to school, and he always kept his Bible at hand. At 17, he wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a letter. King replied to “the boy from Troy” with a bus ticket to join him in Montgomery, a journey that would change not just Lewis’s life but the course of history.

“He didn’t want future generations to be subject to so much humiliation and suffering,” says Dawn Porter, the director of Good Trouble. “He was determined to change things.”

Off and on beginning in 2018, Porter spent months with Lewis, filming him at his Atlanta home, on the hustings as he stumped for congressional candidates across the country before the 2018 midterms, in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building, and for a trip back to his hometown of Troy. For Porter, who first interviewed Lewis for a documentary on Bobby Kennedy, a film devoted solely to Lewis made perfect sense.

“People know about his activities on the Selma bridge,” Porter says, “but I wanted to show that these marches didn’t just spontaneously happen. The civil rights movement was years of very tedious marches and planning and kids who gave up years of their lives to do this work. Young people like Lewis—he was the radical.”

John Lewis: Good Trouble
Despite a recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Lewis made the trip to Selma in March for the 55th anniversary of the 1965 historic march.

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Good Trouble is also remarkable for the depth of the archival footage that producers unearthed. For instance, the clips of Lafayette and Lewis on the banks of the lake were from NBC, which, like other networks at the time, sent independent filmmakers to the South to document the nascent civil rights movement. And so, for example, we are able to see the training that protesters underwent to gird them for the verbal—and physical—abuse they would suffer as they sought to integrate the lunch counters of Nashville.

Lewis is 80. Late last year, he announced he has stage-four pancreatic cancer. For any patient with such a diagnosis, the prognosis is grim. On Valentine’s Day, Porter visited Lewis at his home, and he greeted her as he always did: button-down shirt, pressed slacks. He offered her tea. In a few weeks would be the 55th anniversary of the Selma march that had left Lewis bleeding but also had led to the Voting Rights Act. Would the congressman be making the trip to Selma, sick as he was? “He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go.’ And he did.”

Says Porter: “Sometimes you’re a little afraid to meet people that you consider heroes. They might disappoint you in person. He exceeded my expectations. It was literally nothing but joyful to be around that man.”

This article appears in our May 2020 issue. It was updated from print to reflect the new release date.

“A part of me had to die, to open up to newer life.” A monk shares his calling

Brother Philip Holy Spirit in Conyers
Brother Philip

Photograph by Mike Colletta

Every monk has a unique story, and it all begins with the call. My call came at a time when I was a pastry chef in Pittsburgh. I was getting burned out. I was unfulfilled and unsatisfied with the life I was living. I wanted to live a deeper, more meaningful life with purpose. It took several years of discerning this call. You’re never sure what is attracting you to a monastery. Is it really God calling, or is it me trying to escape my reality?

I came to visit for a week, and I lived in the retreat house here and participated in the services with the monks. Then, I went back home and still was not sure. It took me another six months to come back to become an observer, which is the first step—living inside the monastery with the monks.

This period of time was a terrible struggle. I alternately tested this [call to become a monk] against what it was going to require me to leave behind. You’re asked as a monk to give up everything you own, to give up any expectation of your future. I have four brothers, a mother and father. The hardest part was leaving my family. And I was willing to do that. If I was willing to leave what I loved most for something which I believe was greater, then I believe that is an authentic call. That really sustained me, seeing what I was leaving, believing in faith that everything is possible with God, and just to trust.

Jesus said that unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth, it remains alone. It will not bear fruit unless it dies. A part of me had to die, a part of that life had to end, to open up to newer life. And I thought of it as sacrificing love for the greatest love there is. I don’t believe it excludes the love I have for my family. I believe it involves that, and it takes on something greater. I still maintain a great relationship with my family. They visit once a year.

Brother Philip Holy Spirit in ConyersA day here begins early. The first service is at 4 a.m., what’s called vigils, the first hour of prayer. After vigils, it’s time for personal prayer, or Lectio Divina, which is sacred reading of scripture. And then Mass at 7 o’clock, and after Mass, we begin work for a period of three hours. I work in the bakery with several other brothers. After midday prayer, we share a communal meal.

After the meal, we have personal time until 2:30, when we begin another period of work until 4:30. It’s really the wisdom of the Benedictine way—from work to prayer, prayer to work. It’s not really compartmentalized; it’s all one. From 4:30 to 5:15 is for personal prayer. And then we have vespers, then supper, then evening prayers, called compline.

[As a monk,] we offer ourselves to God for the church and for all people. We make a vow to serve all of God’s people. To serve our community, the larger church, and the world. We pray for the salvation of all people.

If you think you’re going to get away from all your problems, your anxieties, you’re going to find them more acutely here in solitude. That’s part of the spiritual combat—facing our own selves, coming to peace within ourselves, accepting and coming to your conversion. This is definitely not an escape from the world, or from ourselves.

Some monasteries are closing down, because of the decreasing numbers. [Monastery of the Holy Spirit now is home to 26 monks, down from a peak of 100.] We believe that a lot has to do with the way the culture has developed, with so much technology. But we believe that God continues to call people, though all the technology, the phones, can be a distraction. It’s become more difficult for people to take the time to hear God calling.

Every day, I’m reminded why I came here, what my purpose is. And if I’m willing to submit myself to his will, then I’m at peace, and I believe he can accomplish anything, even in someone like me who may have thought before that I had no purpose. But I found it in doing his will. And I find great joy in that.

This article appears in our April 2020 issue.

21st Century Plague

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” — Albert Camus, The Plague

Time is cruelly elastic. When March began, Joe Biden was celebrating the resurgence of his presidential campaign after a win in the South Carolina primary. When March began, downtown Atlanta was packed with marathon runners, while the Hawks were, reliably, scraping the bottom of the Eastern conference. When March began, we were going to restaurants, and to school, and to soccer games and concerts and plays and funerals and weddings. When March began, we were going to work. When March began, dozens of Georgians were walking around with absolutely no idea that within a matter of days they would be dead from a virus that had traveled across the world only to alight on them. How many more of us will step into its crosshairs?

Each day feels like a month. So much news is compressed into 24 hours—thousands more infected, ICUs at capacity, unemployment rates reaching heights not seen since the Great Depression, our 401ks decimated—that our brains seize up. Grocery store visits are planned with the precision of a wartime raid. Kids’ days are ostensibly scheduled—Reading! Enrichment! FaceTime with the teacher!—but how do you homeschool and telework at the same time? You don’t. The screens you once cursed are now free childcare.

That’s, of course, if we even can work from home. Some of us can’t. Many of us have been laid off or furloughed as restaurants close their doors, as nonprofits’ funding dries up, as fitness studios go dark. Others of us who have been deemed “essential”—nurses, doctors, first responders, grocery-store workers, mail carriers, truck drivers, delivery people—come home late at night and shed our clothes outside so as not to bring the virus near our loved ones.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. This was guaranteed to happen. But to us? Now? We spoke with our neighbors about the world we’ve left behind, and the one that awaits. Interviews edited for length and clarity. Tap on each person’s name to read their full interview.

• • •

Dr. Michelle Au | anesthesiologist at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital
I first started hearing about the virus after Christmas. But the news still felt like something distant. It was in China, so you’re watching with this detached interest. I am in the unusual position of being a Chinese American physician with a public-health degree who also happens to be running for office [Au is a Democratic candidate for the 48th state Senate district, which incorporates parts of Fulton and Gwinnett counties]. I was talking with voters in the Chinese community who said that I should be speaking out on the issue more. I probably should have paid more attention. I should have taken it more seriously.

Dr. Meria Carstarphen | superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools
Right after Valentine’s Day, one of my friends was going to Venice, Italy. While my friend was there, they shut down Carnival [due to coronavirus]. That was my reality check. I said to our team, “We need to prepare for the day when we have to shut down the district.” There were moments where I felt I was pushing a wet noodle up a mountain. As things started escalating, we had to make decisions. I said, “We have to prepare a contingency plan that starts with the worst-case scenario.”

Devon Clinkscales | senior at Booker T. Washington High School
This year was my senior season of high school baseball, my last year. I was really excited about going out strong and getting ready for travel ball. It was my best opportunity to get some scouting.

Hugh Acheson | owner of Empire State South in Midtown and 5 & 10 in Athens and operator of By George in the Candler Hotel
The real canary in the coal mine was [in early March], reading about restaurants in Shanghai. Shanghai to Wuhan [where the virus is said to have originated] is an immense amount of distance. [Restaurants in Shanghai] were saying that they didn’t know how long they could stay open. Their sales were down 80 to 90 percent, and it was just a ghost town. We’re not an industry with deep pockets. Everybody’s like, “Oh, Hugh, you’ve been on TV. You must be rich.” I’m like, “You have no idea how this works, do you?”

Kathy Weeks Lowery | self-employed travel agent in Marietta
[A client] was supposed to leave on March 28 out of Tokyo for a 12-day cruise. That was her son’s college graduation gift. Holland America held tight. They said if she cancels now, she’s losing 50 percent of her money. That was January 24. Travel insurance doesn’t cover a pandemic. Since then, they canceled the cruise and gave her the rest of the money. Cruise lines are offering as much as 225 percent of your refund toward a future booking. For me, it’s been everything. I had 117 kids going to D.C. for a field trip, 10 people going to the Grove Park Inn, a busload going to Mary Mac’s and Hamilton. All canceled. I only get paid after clients travel. I figure this year’s income will be 20 percent of last year’s.

Amy Phuong | vice president of government relations for the Atlanta Hawks
My wedding was set for March 28. We had everything planned. I even had a final walkthrough at the venue on March 4. We’d invited 200 people.

Mike Gallagher | co-owner of Brick Store Pub and Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Good Word Brewing in Duluth, and partial owner of Kimball House. Together, the four restaurants employ approximately 200 people.
2019 was a tough year. We had opened [Good Word Brewing]. The contractor had gone belly up when we opened. We lost our chef and sous-chef. We had a lot of money invested in Duluth. But 2020 was starting great. We’d put down a sizeable amount of money on a redo of Brick Store.

On February 26, after seven years running the pop-up restaurant Eat Me Speak Me, Jarrett Stieber opened his first permanent restaurant. The build-out took months.

Jarrett Stieber | chef-owner of Little Bear in Summerhill
We had inspectors tell us we had to change things, and we covered the cost. So, like every restaurant, we ran way over budget. We opened with $285 in our checking account after buying products for the first week and just prayed that we were busy. We, thankfully, were.

On March 2, five days after Little Bear opened, Governor Brian Kemp announced the first two confirmed cases of coronavirus in Georgia—two members of the same household in Fulton County. Nationwide, only 90 cases had been confirmed, six of whom were fatalities. “Georgians should remain calm,” Kemp said.

Stieber We had one customer who said that she couldn’t believe that a place like Little Bear was here, that it reminded her of restaurants in San Francisco. That’s exactly what I had in my head when I planned this restaurant, that small-capacity hole-in-the-wall that basically is a neighborhood restaurant in terms of how it feels but has food as good as any high-end restaurant. We were hitting our stride.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Jarrett Stieber: “My focus is keeping the business open any way I can.”

Photograph by Audra Melton

Clinkscales On March 2, we were evicted from our apartment, but they didn’t change the locks. If they’d changed the locks, we’d have nowhere to go. Our stuff would be out on the street. My dad and my mother had a couple of disagreements on how to maintain. I have an older sister who has an apartment in a project, so my mother, my other sister, and my niece all moved in with her. But I stayed with my dad. He didn’t finish high school. He needs someone. He doesn’t understand how things work. I love my dad, and I have to be with him.

Belisa Urbina | founder/executive director of Ser Familia, a nonprofit that provides services to Latino families
My husband’s family is from Spain, so we knew what was going on there. We knew what was going on in other places. I knew that if this was happening in all these other countries, it was going to happen to us because we are connected. Flights are coming in and out. People are moving around.

Shawn Ware | owner of Vibe Ride cycle studios
When the news about the coronavirus first came out, I was taking a break at home, between working at the Westside studio in the morning and Grant Park in the afternoon. I thought, Okay, well, this is just a flu. I’ve always been a gym rat, and I’ve always joked that I’ve been a germophobe since I was in the womb. I’m always washing my hands, using hand sanitizer. I thought, So, now you all are jumping on board for what I’ve been doing my whole life? But then, as the hours and days went on, I realized this was serious.

On Friday, March 6, President Trump, wearing khakis, a windbreaker, and a Keep America Great baseball cap, visited the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for a photo op and press conference, where he referenced his “natural ability” at understanding the complexities of virology and addressed the sluggish pace of testing for the virus. What he said wasn’t even a complete sentence: “As of right now, and yesterday, anybody who needs a test—and that’s the important thing.” While other countries were ramping up their tests to include even those who were asymptomatic—results which indicate who is contagious and who is not—the United States was (and as of late March remained) unequipped to test any but those suffering the most extreme symptoms. By Monday, March 9, the number of Georgians who’d tested positive for the virus had climbed to six, with 11 more presumed positive. Kemp announced that space at Hard Labor Creek State Park in east Georgia would be outfitted to accept COVID-19 patients who needed to be isolated.

Phuong Even that week [of March 9], I started out feeling like, Okay, our wedding is so soon there’s no way it’s going to be impacted. Even though Italy at that time had made a turn for the worse, [my fiance] Kerry’s family is from Spain, and we felt good because they weren’t impacted the way Italy was. Then, we got to Wednesday, and that’s when it dramatically switched. That’s when the Hawks had their final game. That was the same evening that Trump instituted the travel ban from Europe. Kerry’s family would not be able to make it.

Carstarphen The day when I said to my fellow superintendents that I’m considering closing the district even though we don’t have any cases—that was a bit of a shock. Even to myself. I work with children. So, the idea that I would even put on the table this notion that they might not have a prom, they might not be able to play for the state championship, they might not be able to get closure after 12 years of public school, that their moment gets snatched away from them? It’s sobering how your decision can change the direction of people’s lives.

Dock Hollingsworth | senior pastor at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church
Wednesday, March 11, was a turning point. We were here for the Wednesday night services. There was still a lot of levity. A 94-year-old man came up to me and said, “Boy, I was relieved that this is targeting people 60 to 80 since it’s been so long since I was 80.” By Thursday morning we were in a whole different mode. I was in a peer group with other Atlanta pastors. Everyone was asking, “What measures are you taking?”

Keisha Lance Bottoms | mayor of Atlanta
I went to Sam’s Club on Thursday. A woman asked me what I was doing there. “The same thing you’re doing.” I have four kids at home. My husband makes grocery runs on his way home from work. But I knew we needed to stock up with a family of six. I’m now cooking three meals a day. But my personal adjustment pales in comparison to what’s happening. People are dying.

Urbina We provide services to about 4,500 people. The services that we provide are very difficult to find. To give you an idea, there are 700,000 Latinos in metro Atlanta but there are less than 70 counselors who are fully licensed that can speak Spanish. There are four psychologists in the state of Georgia who can speak Spanish, and there are five psychiatrists who can speak Spanish. Latino children have twice the chance of having anxiety and depression compared to other teens. Our Latina girls, almost 20 percent of them attempt suicide.

Joey Camp | cook at Waffle House in Canton who also drives a party bus part-time
I started getting pneumonia [in early March]. I felt like I was drowning. The chills had gotten so bad that I could not keep my teeth from chattering. If my teeth weren’t chattering, I was coughing. [On March 12,] I went to the emergency room. They did all these tests—a CT scan with contrast, x-rays, everything. They were like, You got really bad pneumonia. We’re going to put you in a room and monitor you for a few days. Well, I was in there for probably nine hours when they hung the isolation box on my door. Which is where they keep all these gloves, smocks, and masks that everybody has to put on before they’re allowed into the room. I got a little nervous.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta

Phuong It hit me Friday night. We’d been planning so long, and now, our wedding is not going to happen. It was emotional.

Dr. Laurence Busse | medical director, critical care, Emory Johns Creek Hospital
On March 13, it was profound the amount of people coming into the ER. That was a scary day, and we all finished that day thinking, What are we in for?

Dr. Jessica Nave | hospital medicine, Emory University Hospital
I was hoping that, by early April, we’d peak. But now, my projection is we’ll peak at the end of April. And that’s still optimistic. It’s just the numbers. If you look at Seattle and New York, they’re still going. We didn’t start getting cases until the second week of March. We have to have a solid month of getting hit really hard before we peak.

Marshall Rancifer | homeless advocate and relief worker
There are 4,000 homeless people out there on the streets. Youth and adults. Homeless people share everything: food, clothes, hygiene products, blunts, crack pipes, needles sometimes. I brought a bunch of crack pipes to them so they wouldn’t share pipes. Some don’t know there is a virus outbreak in the city. They don’t have access to social media or the news. If you’re not in a shelter, you’re walking around in suspended animation all day. I saw people starting to light cigarettes and pass them around. I knocked the cigarettes out of their hands. I said, “You can’t share cigarettes, can’t share food, don’t touch nobody, don’t shake nobody’s hand. Don’t hug nobody.” Had to explain to the mothers in a park on Proctor Street what they can and can’t do. We’re not just educating the homeless; we are educating poor people and marginalized folks. They just don’t know.

The weekend of March 14-15 was surreal. Social media and television were talking about nothing else, and school districts across the state, including Atlanta Public Schools, were announcing or had just begun indefinite closures. But for many Atlantans, life went on as normal. Bars were full. Restaurants were open. The BeltLine was packed. At Brick Store in Decatur, the owners decided to go ahead with a planned St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which included a short parade to the bar, scheduled for Saturday. Their decision, announced on the bar’s Facebook page the day before, brought out the knives. “You are encouraging people to make a very selfish decision,” wrote one of the more restrained commenters. “Public health providers are telling us to behave AS IF WE HAVE THE VIRUS, because many of us likely do.”

Gallagher Calling it a “parade” is a stretch, because there were about 15 to 25 people. There were more people congregated in front of retail stores than there were in the parade. But we did it, and we had our event. We removed some tables. We put some tables spread out outside. We removed some barstools. I think people were clustering with whom they felt safe, their own household member or a family member, and then they spread out otherwise. It wasn’t six feet apart in the whole place, for sure. But our staff was militant about sanitizing bartops, tabletops, stools, chairs, menus in between their reuse, faucets. I got a lot of feedback from staff and guests about how meaningful it was to them and how they viewed it as a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak moment in time. So we certainly got a lot of great feedback. But the bashing on social media was unfortunate and unnecessary, quite frankly.

Carstarphen I always believed we would be here at mitigation—not prevention, not containment. Mitigation was probably the only way we’d go given the spirit of our country, given we’re a democracy, given that people love their personal freedoms and their individual decision-making.

Stieber This is the first time that social media and the general public have been able to kind of force people’s hands in a business sense, beyond just what is recommended from a health standpoint. We live in an era where people are so polarized and proselytizing of everything from behind their screens that whether you want to stay open right now, to fight for your business, you don’t really have much of a choice because of the stigma associated with doing so.

As new restrictions kept restaurants from opening to guests, they pivoted to takeout operations. They started GoFundMe accounts for furloughed staff. At Brick Store, owners reduced their menu to soups and sandwiches. Donations to the “soup kitchen”—meant to compensate workers—were encouraged, but if you couldn’t pay, you could still grab a bag.

Acheson My real worry is for all the people that I promised to provide for and can’t. That’s very hard, because I want on my tombstone to be remembered as a good employer, and a good human, and a good dad. The people who are going to get hit worst by this are undocumented. It’s not like we have a huge number of them on the payroll, but across the country, there are. They can’t get unemployment. They pay taxes through payrolls, but they don’t get taxes back. They are screwed. But we’re all screwed. Everybody’s like, Well, we’ll recover. No. Fifty percent of the restaurants that just shut down across this country will never reopen.

Gallagher Most restaurants are lucky to have two full weeks’ worth of financial runway, and employees, probably even less. A lot of these guys are paycheck-to-paycheck. We are taking the money from the GoFundMe, the money from the gift cards, and any additional monies that have been given, and we’re divvying them up among staff on this upcoming payroll. We’re going to try to find an hourly threshold. For instance, if you worked 24 hours or less, you’ll get this pay rate. If you’re 25 or more, you’ll get that pay rate. We felt that was the most equitable, least cumbersome way to do it. I’ll be honest, it was tough. Do you pay more because they make more? Do you pay more because they need more? Do you pay more because they worked with you longer?

Acheson I’m really happy that people are buying gift certificates. If we sell $2,000 of to-go food today, I’ll be impressed. That does not equate to being able to pay $16,000 in rent next month that Empire State owes and payroll costs of $44,000 every two weeks.

Urbina Our community works in hospitality, restaurants, construction. Those are the first industries that are affected. We have already had clients who have lost their jobs. They know that they’re probably not going to be able to pay rent at the beginning of April.

While most coronavirus infections don’t require hospitalization, roughly 15 percent do. Usually, though not always, the person needing hospitalization is elderly or immunocompromised. The infection ravages the lungs, leading often to pneumonia. Patients can’t get enough oxygen on their own. Some require a ventilator, a machine that augments the patient’s respiration through forced exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Busse I’m critical care. So, when patients get to me, they’re in dire straits. The typical thing that’s seen down in the emergency room is fever, some increased work of breathing, some hypoxia [low levels of oxygen in tissue], and some malaise or body aches. Those folks who have, let’s say, a little bit of increased work of breathing or need some oxygen would be admitted to have supportive care while they get through their illness. But if they have a higher degree of oxygen needs or they’re in septic shock or they’re in kidney failure, then they come to me. And those folks can be exquisitely ill, anywhere from just needing a few extra liters of oxygen to having multiorgan failure and needing a full bevy of life support.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Dr. Laurence Busse: “When patients get to me, they’re in dire straits.”

Photograph by Audra Melton

Nave Sometimes illness is difficult to define by objective measures. We’ll get a call from the ER physician saying, “I think this patient needs to get admitted.” I’m looking at their chart and saying, “Well, they’re not hypoxic, they’re fine.” They’ll say, “Just come and lay your eyes on them.” So, I do, and it’s, “Oh yeah, this person is not going to do well.” They have a look about them. Their breathing pattern is abnormal. They’re using more accessory muscles.

Au The act of intubating a COVID-19 patient is essentially the highest-risk procedure you can do. As you’re putting in that tube and they’re breathing out through this channel you’re putting in, it gives an opportunity for the virus to be in the air. Usually, it’s in droplets. Aerosolized virus can float around. It’s one of the most infectious potential procedures you can do on a COVID patient. The person who is best and most senior and experienced at doing intubations should do it. They take the least amount of time possible. Put in the tube, quick, hook up the ventilator, and minimize exposure to everyone.

Nave Some of our sickest patients have been in their late 20s to late 30s and otherwise healthy. We don’t know why.

Camp On Saturday [March 13], they tested me for COVID-19, and I got positive affirmation on Monday. How in the world did I get this? I have not been to Italy, I haven’t been to China, I haven’t been around people, to my knowledge, that have been to those places. I live a very boring life. When they finally told me on Monday, they also released me from the hospital to self-quarantine. The house I was living in had an infant in it. I didn’t want to take the chance of getting that infant sick. So, I was like, “I need options.”

Camp was brought to Hard Labor Creek State Park and put in a camper to recuperate until he was no longer contagious. He was there for six days.

Camp It had a nice bed in it. There were cookies. The state health officials were super helpful. I asked them to go on a grocery run because a diabetic cannot live on chips and cookies. And they went and got me some bananas, some apples, some cucumbers—all this stuff for me to snack on. I offered to pay for some of the stuff, and they wouldn’t have it. They paid for my medicine. They got me a new blood-sugar meter. The first few days were rough. The coughing was the worst part at that point. I had stopped having chills, I had stopped having a fever, but I was still coughing my brains out. It was like starting a car. Just whoop, whoop, whoop, just constant. And it just slowly went away. One day, I was coughing every three or four minutes; the next day, it was every half hour; the next day, it was every hour. And by the time I was done, I was only coughing very, very rarely, when I got a tickle in the back of my throat. It wasn’t even in my lungs anymore.

Au We know that some of the sick are going to be our colleagues. We know that the more we are going to engage, the more people are going to be sick. Over the weekend, I started sleeping in the guest room in the basement because it’s separate from the rest of the house. I have my own bathroom because I don’t want to share a bathroom with anyone. I’m very meticulous about hygiene now—I mean, I always was because I work in the hospital—but now it’s like, shower and change into clean clothes before I leave the hospital. And then, I shower and change clothes again [once I’m home].

Rancifer I wasn’t scared before, but I’m scared now. My father and mother always taught me not to run away from trouble—run toward it, because you can be the person who can change something or save someone’s life. But once this gets out of hand, I’m not going to run toward someone that can kill me. I’m 63. I fall under the category of major at-risk. After I meet with big groups of folks, I skim down to my skivvies. I wear two pairs of gloves. When I get in the car I take my clothes off and throw them on the ground. I take the top pair of gloves off and put them in a disposable Ziploc bag. Then, I take the sanitized clothes out, get dressed, and then move on back home.

Au Yesterday I cried talking to a high-school friend. When you’re at home, because the kids are there, you want to be like, Everything’s cool. It is so disruptive for them, so you put on the cheerful face. And at work, since I’m an attending physician, you want to put forth that “everything’s under control.” You get accustomed to trying to keep other people calm. But talking to someone that I’ve known before this, it was just an unguarded moment. What if I get sick? [My husband and I are] rewriting our wills right now. He’s a doctor, too. One of us has to stay well.

Clinkscales My mom is worrying about what we’re going to do. She is part of a housecleaning business, but people haven’t been allowing them into their homes because of precautions. My dad works in building services for a hotel, and his income has been dropping. Because of the pandemic, baseball has been canceled, five games in. Colleges aren’t recruiting. Some schools aren’t even accepting students.

Ware I spent most of the day today on the phone with our creditors and sending emails to landlords and to the people we lease bikes from, and they’re like, We get it. They’ve been extremely understanding, but it is a very, very scary time. One of our creditors said, We can defer for three months but we’ll still collect interest. Our largest creditor, Wells Fargo, is deferring payments with no late fees and no interest and no reporting to our credit bureau. But a community bank is going to charge us interest. They said, That’s just what we have to do. When we sent the email that we were going to suspend everyone’s membership, we had 35 to 40 people call and say, Don’t cancel. Don’t suspend our accounts. We want to continue to pay because we know you are hit hard, and this is our gym. We want to help and support you as much as we can. Some of these people have been members since the beginning. They’re not clients or strangers; they opened the doors with us. That has been so amazing.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Shawn Ware: “I spent most of the day today on the phone with our creditors.”

Photograph by Audra Melton

Acheson I had $26 in my checking account last week, last week, before this all happened. I’m borrowing personal funds from people I know to pay payroll. Small business is being abandoned. It’s been abandoned for a long time in this country. Nobody has any inkling about how much hurt this is going to do. Lobbyists are on the Hill right now getting every meeting that they want to bail out Delta Air Lines yet again, and the auto industry is going to get bailed out. One in 10 people in the States work for the hospitality industry. Nobody’s bailing us out. We bail out all the wrong people in this country, consistently, over and over again. These are the same people who don’t want Medicare for All, yet they want a socialist handout when they make bad decisions in business, and they go broke.

When the coronavirus closed Atlanta Public Schools, the district implemented a massive effort to continue offering free meals to its 52,416 students. Working with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, APS offers a bag of free groceries every Monday at four locations around town. The district hosts an additional giveaway on Tuesdays and is offering meal service at 10 sites around town, including delivery of meals via the school bus system.

Carstarphen Our goal as of yesterday was to be at 40,000 meals on any given day in a school district. We let everyone eat. As food supplies diminish or are late, and as staff continue to self-quarantine and find other challenges trying to come to work every day, we’ll have staffing shortages.

Bottoms I drove to my mother’s house, and she stood outside my car. I hadn’t seen my mother in a few weeks. Which isn’t normal. My grandmother would quote the Bible: “Be anxious for nothing.” You hear from people all the time, “This, too, shall pass.” I had to write that on the wall in the mayor’s office to remind myself. We’re going to be alright. When I need to take a breath and clear my mind, I’ll go and sort some shoes. This too shall pass.

Camp I work in the service industry. Half of my income has been wiped out by this. The party bus industry is on hiatus because all the bars are shut down, proms were shut down, all of that. That’s killing my income. I still have bills. Part of me feels like the government shouldn’t be telling businesses to close their doors. I feel like that should be a case-by-case basis.

Busse The preparation [by the federal government] has been poor, but I didn’t really expect it not to be. Do you plan for the worst-case scenario? Or do you put resources elsewhere? So, the response in general has not been great. And I think that’s sort of what I expected. And frankly, if I was in that position, I’m not sure I would’ve done it differently. I mean, it’s really hard to plan for something like this. I’ve never had this in my lifetime. And I’ve been here for Ebola, for H1N1 influenza, and I was here for the first SARS illness back in 2003. We’ve seen these things erupt on a regional level but never really become a global pandemic. This is new in our generation.

Urbina My nightmare is that one of my employees gets sick, and I have to close my office, and our families have nowhere to go. At the moment, what we need most are donations or gift cards. One donor asked if she could bring baby formula, and I said yes, that would be fantastic. We have another person who asked if they could bring baskets of food. Yes, whatever you think you can do. We are very grateful.

Busse When we run out of ventilators, that’s not something that we can just pull out of the closet. So, we’re relying on and hoping for support from the government to get more ventilators. We’re relying on and hoping for support from industry to get us more resources. We’re using what we have now, and once that’s it, once we’re out, we’re going to have to get creative. We don’t have enough N95 masks. We don’t have enough personal protective equipment. We’re using what we have, and we are hoping that we don’t get the virus.

Nave We’ve started rationing our personal protective equipment. We’re trying to be very, very smart about when to use it and on which patients. It’s kept under lock and key because there’s panic even in the healthcare system when something like this hits. People start hoarding.

Ware My husband is 60 and has heart disease, so we want to make sure he is extra-protected. I’m a breast-cancer survivor. We live in a condo downtown. We are in and out of the parking garage, touching that door all the time. Those are the things we have to be conscious about. We’re here, and we’re in the house more now, obviously. But it’s fine, it’s family time. We’ve got a puzzle. I got me some wine.

Brad Levenberg | rabbi at Temple Sinai
So many of us have relied on physical gatherings to provide comfort when we’re going through difficult times. When it’s joyous, we gather to celebrate. In the days after 9/11, we gathered in homes and apartments to watch the news. Now, this kind of support is all being challenged. We need to find other ways.

Busse Right now we’re not seeing the normal volume of patients that show up needing care at the hospital. And is that because patients are being more careful and taking their medicine and having telehealth visits with their primary-care doctors? Are they no longer using the emergency room as a sort of a primary-care outlet? And it makes me think: Is this what healthcare could be if we were sort of using the system appropriately? Now, of course, the pessimist in me worries that when this is all said and done, we’re going to look at mortality and morbidity of people that were not infected with COVID-19 and we’re going to see that go up.

Nave Italy had so many cases that all presented at once that it overwhelmed their entire system, and they’re having to choose who’s going to live and who’s going to die. They’re looking at two patients who are actively dying and there’s one ventilator, and they’re saying “You get it.” That’s probably the most horrific experience for a physician. I can’t even imagine. That’s what we don’t want.

Hollingsworth We are in the holy season of Lent right now. It’s already designed to be a season of introspection and asking the big questions. So, in many ways, this makes the Lenten questions more real and more pressing because the ground is shaky under people. But personally the ground doesn’t feel that shaky to me. Because I have a different kind of existential hope. We may see people turning to the church to ask, Are there answers there that perhaps I’ve been making fun of for a long time? This is an opportunity to live inside a hope that is not built on markets or how many widgets you can sell.

Carstarphen This is going to have a huge and disproportionate impact on black and brown and poor children. When you’re in a city that has the label of being the most unequal city in America when it comes to income disparity, and you’re working with people who are already fragile and incredibly strained in the healthiest of economies, this is crushing. If you’re wealthy, you can still get the access to the things you need for your family. Our kids weren’t getting that at the outset. It took a pandemic to wake up some people to know that we have to support our marginalized brothers and sisters.

Clinkscales I don’t have money to pay for college on my own. Scholarships have been taken away. I’ve been thinking about starting a business. I have always wanted to own a sports bar. Now, I’m scared about what I’m going to do after I graduate. I was working hard, doing extracurricular activities, filling out scholarship applications, playing sports, trying to do something better for my family. And it all got taken away because of the virus.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Devon Clinkscales: “I’m scared about what I’m going to do after I graduate.”

Photograph by Audra Melton

Urbina This pandemic has proved how connected we are. Nobody can say that they have not been touched by this. I am Latina, but if something is happening to my friends in the black community, it’s my problem. I have to do something about it because they’re my people. With everything that’s happening to the Asian community, I feel so sad that people have made them feel they are to blame for the situation, which, they’re not. We need everybody’s help so we can survive. There will be repercussions from this that we can’t even imagine right now. Do whatever you can, but just do something.

Stieber My main focus is keeping the business open any way I possibly can, which right now means switching to a to-go–only format this week. But we have to do what we have to do, and I’m doing whatever I can to make sure I pay my staff and keep their jobs. If you have the ability to stay home and still get paid and you’re willing to share with the people who need it, then do so. Just stop posting the same memes—pony up and do something legitimate to help.

Nave I don’t leave my house a lot [when I’m not at the hospital]. We have gone to the grocery store. We do not bring our children. I keep hand sanitizer in my purse. The second I get in my car, I sanitize my hands again. We bring all the groceries in, unload then, and immediately wipe every single food item down: boxes, milk jugs, whatever. Then, we take a wipe and retrace our entire steps from the time we entered the house—every doorknob, every baby gate, every counter.

Levenberg This is a time when you don’t have to put your life on the line to be a hero. You’re a hero when you pay your yard people to not show up. When you pay your cleaning people to stay home. When you send a gift card to teachers who are learning new tools to teach your children. These are all heroic measures.

Bottoms I’ve been thinking a lot about the Holocaust and the diary of Anne Frank, how people’s lives changed and they had to go in hiding. When I think about that, this is a minor inconvenience. There are people who live across the globe with disease and war. I’m in a house with AC and a backyard and two dogs who get to run around and play. It’s made me grateful just about the little things—going to a restaurant, getting your nails done, going to the store. These conveniences we take for granted our entire lives. It’s given me a perspective, another layer of empathy.

Nave This is a different infectious agent than we have ever seen in most of our lifetimes. This truly is unprecedented. I was at Emory when we dealt with Ebola. Ebola’s mortality is way worse than this, and it’s very infectious—but not as infectious as this. This is crazy: You start with one city in China, and now, the whole world has it because we’re so interconnected. This is such an unprecedented infectious agent that we have to be more diligent and cautious, even at the cost of some of the economics of this country. Because how do you put value on a life?

Hollingsworth If we have a death in our community, it’s our practice to come together as a community and tell stories. We can’t do that now. But an interment can’t wait. The staff here will do small graveside services, and we’ll encourage families to push a memorial service into the future.

Gallagher [My wife and I have] had some difficult talks about the greater good. Is it being available as a soup kitchen, or selling food to raise money for our staff, or closing down and keeping the highest level of social distancing? This morning, she shared a dream she had where she was in the grocery store and there was too many people and she could see the hand sanitizer and she couldn’t get to it.

Levenberg I hope we have a renewed understanding of those who are more marginalized than we are and of the privileges we claim by default. Maybe that sense will be awakened in people who are seeing that there are a lot of people who are worse off, who are seeing that they’ve milked the existing system for their families at the expense of others.

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Amy Phuong and Kerry O’Brate

Photograph by Audra Melton

Phuong We thought, What’s preventing us from still getting married? So, we went to the courthouse to get our marriage license the last day the court was open. We pulled up the weather app to look for a date when it wasn’t going to rain. Bill Bolling [the founder of Atlanta Community Food Bank, who was officiating] said, “Pick a pretty spot.” I thought, let’s just pick our neighborhood park, Cabbagetown Park. When Kerry and I first started dating, it was midway between our houses. My parents came, my sister. We had to keep it under 10. We had hand sanitizer. I picked up pastries from Alon’s that morning. We used Kerry’s Zoom account to do some livestreaming. We wanted to make sure family and friends got to be a part of it. On the virtual stream, somebody wore pearls, somebody put on a dress and makeup, someone wore a tuxedo T-shirt, one of the bridesmaids who couldn’t be there even wore her dress. There was a beautiful moment in the ceremony where Bill was addressing the virtual crowd. His remarks almost made the park feel like it was full. He did an affirmation: “Will you guys support this couple?” That was a beautiful moment, looking over at an iPhone on a tripod and hearing everyone say, “We will.”

Expanded interviews: These Georgians had so much more to say than we had space to print. To read their full stories, click on the names below.

Dr. Michelle Au | Dr. Meria Carstarphen | Devon Clinkscales | Hugh Acheson | Amy Phuong | Mike Gallagher | Jarrett Stieber | Belisa Urbina | Shawn Ware |Dock Hollingsworth | Keisha Lance Bottoms | Joey Camp | Dr. Laurence Busse | Dr. Jessica Nave | Marshall Rancifer | Brad Levenberg

This article appears in our May 2020 issue.

Dr. Jessica Nave: “Some of our sickest patients have been in their late 20s to late 30s. We don’t know why.”

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Dr. Jessica Nave—hospital medicine at Emory University Hospital—describes how her hospital is treating COVID-19 patients and the precautions she takes at home to protect her family. (Nave was interviewed on March 26.)

I am in internal medicine but work only in the hospital. If you get admitted, but not to the ICU, then I’m your doctor.

It started out with two to three patients, and it seems like every 48 hours that number almost doubles. We have 30 COVID-19-positive patients now [as of March 26].

When they come in to the ER, they’re screened up front the second they hit the door. If they have anything that sounds remotely like COVID-19, they go to a separate triage waiting room. Once the ER sees them and thinks the person needs to be admitted, then they call me. We have a discussion over the phone, I look at their charts, then I come to the ER and actually see the patient, interview them, take their medical history, and then initiate their care plan. If they need antibiotics, breathing treatments, whatever, I put all those orders in.

We’re seeing fevers and a dry cough. People are also having some shortness of breath. Some confusion, especially in the elderly. We’ve also seen more diarrhea, muscle aches, overall feeling crummy.

They’re cohorted into certain units. We’re trying to isolate them and keep them separate from noninfectious people. A lot of them aren’t that sick, or aren’t sick enough to go into the hospital, so we’re sending them home. The COVID-19 testing still takes 12-24 hours for our in-house test that we developed. For a lot of patients we’re not even running the test; we rule out flu or RSV and tell them to go home and self-quarantine.

What they’re dying from is acute respiratory failure. It’s happening late in the disease course. Normal flu hits you and hits you hard, and you feel terrible for three to five days, and you start to come out of it. With COVID-19, we see symptoms grow gradually and between seven and 10 days [after symptoms begin], we’re seeing them go downhill quick.

It’s scary. I feel like with most disease processes you can predict who’s really sick and who’s going to do well and not do well. You can predict that based on their medical history and demographics and some of their features when they initially present. It’s harder with this one because you might can have an idea at the beginning of the disease and that can change quickly. With the flu, people feel terrible but we tell them to go home. With COVID-19, there’s an unease with sending them home because we’re not sure how to predict [how they’ll do].

Sometimes illness is difficult to define by objective measures. We’ll get a call from the ER physician saying, “I think this patient needs to get admitted.” I’m looking at their chart and saying, “Well, they’re not hypoxic, they’re fine.” They’ll say, “Just come and lay your eyes on them.” So, I do, and it’s, “Oh yeah, this person is not going to do well.” They have a look about them. Their breathing pattern is abnormal. They’re using more accessory muscles.

We don’t have a great guideline of who should be admitted and who shouldn’t. Normally we don’t mind oxygen saturations unless it falls below 91 percent. But we have a higher cutoff for [COVID-19 patients]. If they’re 93 percent or below we’re a little more concerned about that patient. A lot of them are getting troponins, an enzyme that gets spilled into the bloodstream when your heart muscle is damaged. Some of these COVID-19 patients are dying from cardiomyopathies—the virus is either directly or indirectly affecting their heart, and we think they’re dying from a process related to that, if it’s not a primarily respiratorial process. Their heart will go into an abnormal rhythm, vfib or vtach, or they’ll go into a cardiogenic shock. You put them in the ICU, you put them on a ventilator, we have different drug therapies, we have ways to treat it. But that’s only if they’re in the hospital. A lot of these patients the worry is you don’t admit them, we don’t know who’s going to develop a cardiac myopathy. Luckily it’s rare, but it’s one of the thing that’s harder to predict.

[With COVID-19] there’s still a predominance toward the elderly. But some of our sickest patients have been in their late 20s to late 30s and otherwise healthy. We don’t know why.

I was hoping that, by early April, we’d peak. But now, my projection is we’ll peak at the end of April. And that’s still optimistic. It’s just the numbers. If you look at Seattle and New York, they’re still going. We didn’t start getting cases until the second week of March. We have to have a solid month of getting hit really hard before we peak.

I feel like it’s bound to happen [that a colleague will get infected with COVID-19]. We have coworkers who are getting Airbnbs so they can completely isolate from their family. We don’t have that luxury. We don’t have family close by that our kids can stay with. We’re both doctors and we both have to work. This is what we do: You come home from a shift after you’ve been exceptionally careful at work. You leave your shoes in the garage, you go immediately to the laundry room, take your work clothes off, put them in the washing machine, then you go shower. Then you can interact with family members.

We’ve started rationing our personal protective equipment. We’re trying to be very, very smart about when to use it and on which patients. It’s kept under lock and key because there’s panic even in the healthcare system when something like this hits. People start hoarding. Right now our hospital capacity is okay, because people who would otherwise be coming in for mild illnesses, they’re not even coming. They’re afraid to go to the ERs.

Primary care doctors are working insanely hard to try to manage everybody that sometimes they would send to the ER to get quicker management. So our whole capacity is fine, but we are worried about ICU availability.

Italy had so many cases that all presented at once that it overwhelmed their entire system, and they’re having to choose who’s going to live and who’s going to die. They’re looking at two patients who are actively dying and there’s one ventilator, and they’re saying “You get it.” That’s probably the most horrific experience for a physician. I can’t even imagine. That’s what we don’t want. In Italy, they don’t put anyone on a ventilator who’s over 60. Sixty is so young.

I think we did lose an opportunity [to get out ahead of the disease]. At the same time the school systems were shutting down it should have been an obligatory quarantine across the board for nonessential things. But I get it. I have a lot of friends who are small business owners. That’s the one saving grace in my profession. I’m dealing with all the stress of work: Am I going to get my own family sick? And if I happen to catch it not only do I risk my family’s health and my health, but how many patients did I spread it to before I realized I was sick? How many coworkers did I spread it to? And then the coworkers who would have to cover my shifts? It’s this domino effect. There’s this weird guilt associated with everything. You can’t take risks or you really will hurt a lot of people. But the one thing I don’t have to worry about is my income. For people who do have to worry about that, I can’t even imagine. It’s too much.

I call the family members [of COVID-19 patients]. The family members are terrified. To have a policy where you cannot go in and see your loved one heightens the anxiety. That extra efforts you put in to keeping the family informed, making sure they talk to the loved one, and letting them know their loved one is doing okay, is huge right now.

I don’t leave my house a lot [when I’m not at the hospital]. We have gone to the grocery store. We do not bring our children. I keep hand sanitizer in my purse. The second I get in my car, I sanitize my hands again. We bring all the groceries in, unload then, and immediately wipe every single food item down: boxes, milk jugs, whatever. Then, we take a wipe and retrace our entire steps from the time we entered the house—every doorknob, every baby gate, every counter.

This is a different infectious agent than we have ever seen in most of our lifetimes. This truly is unprecedented. I was at Emory when we dealt with Ebola. Ebola’s mortality is way worse than this, and it’s very infectious—but not as infectious as this. This is crazy: You start with one city in China, and now, the whole world has it because we’re so interconnected. This is such an unprecedented infectious agent that we have to be more diligent and cautious, even at the cost of some of the economics of this country. Because how do you put value on a life?

Is there going to be another wave of this come flu and viral season next year? Is this going to stick around and be something we have to worry about year after year? I don’t think anybody knows. We hope it’ll die off in the summer months. It should die off in the summer months. But we just don’t know.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Brick Store Pub co-owner Mike Gallagher: “It’s not the strongest who will survive; it’s those who are willing to adapt.”

Brick Store Pub
Mike Gallagher, center, with Brick Store partners Dave Blanchard and Tom Moore.

Photograph courtesy of Dave Blanchard

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Mike Gallagher—co-owner of Brick Store and Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Good Word Brewing in Duluth, and partial owner of Kimball House—describes the outbreak’s impact on his businesses and his family. (Gallagher was interviewed on March 23.)

2020 was starting great. We’d put down a sizeable amount of money on a redo of Brick Store. So, we were feeling pretty good, and [the coronavirus] was definitely a giant slap in the face. For us, it became a choice of calm or panic. I think everybody has to make that choice. But Twitter and social media and certain news factions operate on panic, and panic propels some and spreads very quickly. Calm does not. Calm takes a lot of effort.

Gallagher and his co-owners decided to go ahead with a planned St. Patrick’s Day celebration on March 14, which included a short parade to the bar. Their decision, announced on Brick Store’s Facebook page the day before, brought out the knives. “You are encouraging people to make a very selfish decision,” wrote one of the more restrained commenters. “Public health providers are telling us to behave AS IF WE HAVE THE VIRUS, because many of us likely do.”

It was an organized walk. Calling it a “parade” is a stretch, because there were about 15 to 25 people. There were more people congregated in front of retail stores than there were in the parade. But we did it, and we had our event. We removed some tables. We put some tables spread out outside. We removed some barstools. I think people were clustering with whom they felt safe, their own household member or a family member, and then they spread out otherwise. It wasn’t six feet apart in the whole place, for sure. But our staff was militant about sanitizing bartops, tabletops, stools, chairs, menus in between their reuse, faucets. I got a lot of feedback from staff and guests about how meaningful it was to them and how they viewed it as a beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak moment in time. So we certainly got a lot of great feedback. But the bashing on social media was unfortunate and unnecessary, quite frankly.

Would we do it again in the same situation? I can’t answer that without buy-in from my partners. I don’t know. My head space is captured in this video. Our company philosophy is, “It’s not the strongest who will survive; it’s those who are willing to adapt.” And in 22 years of Brick Store, we’ve continually had to do [that]. So I honestly don’t know. I’d like to say, “Yes, we would. We’d be better and smarter at doing it, that we would do it again.” But I cannot say without full partner participation in that decision.

As new restrictions kept restaurants from opening to guests, they pivoted to takeout operations. They started GoFundMe accounts for furloughed staff. At Brick Store, owners reduced their menu to soups and sandwiches. Donations to the “soup kitchen”—meant to compensate workers—were encouraged, but if you couldn’t pay, you could still grab a bag.

At Brick Store, we decided to be donation only. That way, if there were folks in the community that didn’t have money and needed to eat, they could. So we’ve just been giving soup and sandwiches. We have six-feet tape markers. They come up and order, and we set the food down and they grab it.

Most restaurants are lucky to have two full weeks’ worth of financial runway, and employees, probably even less. A lot of these guys are paycheck-to-paycheck. And that was the reason to stay open for food, because at least we could feed our people. Some of them are okay [because they have] family support. Some of them very much need financial help. Some of them have needed help navigating how to file for unemployment, so we’ve been filing on their behalf.

Knowing that we were still open, that we were selling stuff, that people were donating by buying gift cards, people were donating through GoFundMe. I think it helped a lot, the outpouring.

We ran a one-week payroll on March 16 to actually pay people ahead so that they would have three weeks of pay in their account. We committed to insurance through April. SBA [Small Business Association] loans are a potential option. But we have a great relationship with CenterState Bank. They’ve been extremely positive and reaching out, not just waiting. So we have opportunities with them to borrow some money if needed. If SBA’s a better deal, we’ll go that route. We are willing to take on a certain amount of debt to get some runway for us and our people. As owners, we’re obviously not going to be taking any money for now unless we have to in order to make our mortgage. We can eat in our homes. That’s really all we need right now—some food and something over your head.

It’s kind of like building the plane while you’re flying it. We’re sort of figuring it out day-to-day. I would say, overall, [employees’] spirits are uplifted. I think perhaps that’s relative to the fact that restaurant people are pretty relatively unflappable in moments like this. We’re sort of built for high-stress. But I also think that there is a sense of community within our restaurant group. I think they’re standing strong on some of that.

At Brick Store, we are taking the money from the GoFundMe, the money from the gift cards, and any additional monies that have been given, and we’re divvying them up among staff on this upcoming payroll. We’re going to try to find an hourly threshold. For instance, if you worked 24 hours or less, you’ll get this pay rate. If you’re 25 or more, you’ll get that pay rate. We felt that was the most equitable, least cumbersome way to do it. I’ll be honest, it was tough. Do you pay more because they make more? Do you pay more because they need more? Do you pay more because they worked with you longer?

[My wife and I have] had some difficult talks about the greater good. Is it being available as a soup kitchen, or selling food to raise money for our staff, or closing down and keeping the highest level of social distancing? This morning, she shared a dream she had where she was in the grocery store and there was too many people and she could see the hand sanitizer and she couldn’t get to it.

The fear and anxiety have definitely been the trickiest ones. I’ve been taking it on a day-to-day basis. To date I haven’t let it creep in. I know it’s there somewhere, this fear of What does it look like? I guess if we do put some good in the world by trying to be available, safely putting food out, and showing our community some hope, I trust—maybe not quickly enough and maybe not to a level of what we would love—that banks, insurance companies, and government will backfill some of that goodness and kindness.

I’ve gotten into a habit in the morning. I come down and make my coffee and, while the cup’s still too hot, I just meditate. I think that moment of selfishness for myself, getting my mind in order, and unraveling my mind a little bit, has been huge. It’s given me some regimen. I can tell on days I don’t do it that I’m a little less patient. And then yesterday, I cycled with a good friend about 30-some miles. Sometimes a bit of exercise helps. We closed both stores yesterday, and I think it was a good mental health day for everyone.

My wife said, “Would you feel helpless if you couldn’t go in?” That certainly is some piece of it, for sure. The opportunity to feel like you can help and do something is, in this moment, a gift.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Rabbi Brad Levenberg: “You don’t have to put your life on the line to be a hero. You’re a hero when you pay your yard people to not show up.”

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Brad Levenberg—Rabbi at Temple Sinai—describes the virus’s impact on his congregation and his hope for the future. (Levenberg was interviewed on March 20.)

We’re hearing a lot from people from all different ages who are looking for hope and affirmation during this time. When the airwaves are filled with so much negativity about what the pandemic is going to mean and how it’s going to get worse before it gets better, we have people who are processing it in different ways. We have seniors who are utterly terrified about going out in public. “Death by handshake” is something I’ve heard from a few of them.

One member yesterday was in a difficult place. After we spoke for a while I realized we weren’t making much inroads. I asked her to tell me about 9/11. “How did you cope?” I asked. She said, “We all were gathered around the TV, crying with each other.” So many of us have relied on physical gatherings to provide comfort when we’re going through difficult times. When it’s joyous we gather to celebrate. In the days after 9/11, we gathered in homes and apartments to watch the news. Now, this kind of support is all being challenged. We need to find other ways.

I am blessed with a family that’s very understanding and a clergy team that’s dividing a lot of these phone calls and responses. We’re also keen on mindfulness practice. We take the important moments to uplift each other when we can. If I’m feeling the burden or stress of this moment, I know others are too. The nature of people in clergy is when we’re feeling something to imagine others too and to provide healing for ourselves and others.

Congregants are composing poems to respond to this moment. For me, there’s an overall belief that’s afforded in Jewish tradition that tomorrow can always be better than today. The idea of hope is central the Jewish experience. For people with as rich a history as we have of going through traumatic moments, we can also know that these moments cannot last forever and better days are ahead. This too shall pass.

This is a time when you don’t have to put your life on the line to be a hero. You’re a hero when you pay your yard people to not show up. When you pay your cleaning people to stay home. When you send a gift card to teachers who are learning new tools to teach your children. These are all heroic measures. When people say, I don’t know what I can do to help, we all have resources, and we can all do something that’s in our power.

I hope we have a renewed understanding of those who are more marginalized than we are and of the privileges we claim by default. Maybe that sense will be awakened in people who are seeing that there are a lot of people who are worse off, who are seeing that they’ve milked the existing system for their families at the expense of others.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Laurence Busse: “When patients get to me, they’re in dire straits.”

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Dr. Laurence Busse: “When patients get to me, they’re in dire straits.”

Photograph by Audra Melton

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Dr. Laurence Busse—medical director, critical care, at Emory Johns Creek Hospital—describes how his hospital is handling COVID-19 patients and his hopes for the future. (Busse was interviewed on March 21.)

On March 13, it was profound the amount of people coming into the ER. There was a real sense of uncertainty and unease among everyone. That was a scary day, and we all finished that day thinking, What are we in for?

I think the message is out there that if you’re mildly ill [with COVID-19 symptoms] and don’t need to be admitted to the hospital, don’t even come in for testing. And so the volume, believe it or not, has been somewhat manageable. But we’ve seen a steady increase in cases of COVID-19. As we start to ramp up in our ability to test, we are uncovering cases that are out there. So my guess is that there’s obviously a lot more cases that are [out there], and we’re just now beginning to learn of them because we’re testing.

Testing capacity is changing day by day. Even today it’s different than it was yesterday. But originally when none of us had the capability, we were relying on the state testing, which I think was [very few tests]. And then we were fairly rapidly able to get some in-house equipment and were able to increase that I think to around 80 to 100 tests per day.

I’m critical care. So, when patients get to me, they’re in dire straits. The typical thing that’s seen down in the emergency room is fever, some increased work of breathing, some hypoxia [low levels of oxygen in tissue], and some malaise or body aches. Those folks who have, let’s say, a little bit of increased work of breathing or need some oxygen would be admitted to have supportive care while they get through their illness. But if they have a higher degree of oxygen needs, or they’re in septic shock, or they’re in kidney failure, then they come to me. And those folks can be exquisitely ill, anywhere from just needing a few extra liters of oxygen to having multi-organ failure and needing a full bevy of life support.

In terms of folks that get admitted to the hospital, probably around 10 percent of them are sick enough to need my services. And that’s probably a fair ratio throughout the system.

The optimist in me hopes that we in Georgia have done enough social distancing and planning that we’re not going to see the calamity that’s going on in New York or Washington state. It’s also getting warmer here, and what we know from prior viral outbreaks is viruses seem to kind of fizzle out. So, the optimist in me hopes that we’ve done enough, that we’re going to see a linear increase in cases until things calm down. But I do worry that as we continue to test, we’ll uncover more and more folks. And we will outstrip our resources, and that’s a big concern for me. We are like every hospital in the country, we have a finite amount of acute care beds and critical care beds. And once we hit capacity, things become much more challenging.

We’re looking at how many ventilators we have, how many isolation rooms we have. We’re looking at our provider core, looking at cohorting patients or sharing supplies. We have the same challenges that everyone is having, which is, when you’re sick, you’re sick. And if you have to be admitted to the hospital and you need care, we’re here to do that. We’re here to help. But when we run out of ventilators for example, that’s not something that we can just pull out of the closet. So we’re relying on and hoping for support from the government to get more vents. We’re relying on and hoping for support from industry to get us more resources. We’re using what we have now and once that’s it, once we’re out, we’re going to have to get creative.

The preparation [by the federal government] has been poor, but I didn’t really expect it not to be. Do you plan for the worst-case scenario? Or do you put resources elsewhere? So the response in general has not been great. And I think that’s sort of what I expected. And frankly, if I was in that position, I’m not sure I would’ve done it differently. I mean, it’s really hard to plan for something like this. I’ve never had this in my lifetime. And I’ve been here for Ebola, for H1N1 influenza, and I was here for the first SARS illness back in 2003. We’ve seen these things erupt on a regional level but never really become a global pandemic. This is new in our generation.

I’m in meetings for resource planning and process planning. I do a lot of coaching of our team and answering questions. I do some patient care when I’m not on service. I go back on service in a week or so, and then I’ll be the physician managing the ICU and someone else probably will be taking my place to sort of go around and sit in on the meetings and learn what new processes we have and what resources we need to hold on to and things like that. So my days are longer and they’re never ending.

We’re using the right equipment, but we are reusing the equipment, like every other health system in the country. We don’t have enough N95 masks. We don’t have enough personal protective equipment. We’re using what we have and we are hoping that we don’t get the virus. Throughout the system we’ve got a number of providers that are already out sick, no one critically at this point. But there are folks that have fevers and are self-quarantining. I’m hoping that we don’t go down too many folks and get into a critical situation, but that is a worry of mine. I worry personally myself. I’m 49, so I’m not in the older higher-risk age group. But there’s a lot of evidence that younger folks are getting pretty serious illness as well.

I’ve got a couple of young kids at home. My wife’s a pediatrician, so she’s seeing patients too. We’re doing our part by practicing social distancing. My parents are staying away. This will sneak up on you too, this illness. There’s reports of profound illness and kidney failure and liver failure and respiratory failure. Unfortunately I see that in my line of work. So, there’s a healthy degree of worry.

It’s a new reality. And I certainly think about how this may change who we are as a society. I worry about the economy. I worry about small businesses that are just surviving or failing to survive. It’s scary that something that started on the other side of the globe can affect us so profoundly. But I’ve also seen some positive things that give me a little hope. It’s less crowded outside. It seems more peaceful. I’ve seen photos of neighbors sitting at the end of their driveway, each neighbor at the end of their driveway, just out there visiting and talking across the street. And it’s nice to see parents reconnect with their kids.

Right now we’re not seeing the normal volume of patients that show up needing care at the hospital. And is that because patients are being more careful and taking their medicine and having telehealth visits with their primary-care doctors? Are they no longer using the emergency room as a sort of a primary-care outlet? And it makes me think: Is this what healthcare could be if we were sort of using the system appropriately? Now, of course, the pessimist in me worries that when this is all said and done, we’re going to look at mortality and morbidity of people that were not infected with COVID-19 and we’re going to see that go up.

[In six months], I think this will all be said and done. Viruses, epidemics, pandemics, they have a lifespan. This is no different. We’ll be sort of getting back to business as usual, maybe with some new changes. Some folks will be suffering from the economic impact of this. Certainly we’re going to have some mortalities attributed to this, but this’ll go. And then I think what we will do though as a society is understand that this can happen. And I think that we’ll be more ready for it if and when it happens again.

China is reporting few new cases, so this virus has a lifespan and it’s finite. I’m waiting on the inflection point in Europe, which hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hoping it will. With every infectious illness, an airborne illness like this, there’s a peak and then it wanes. So, I’m hopeful based on what I’m seeing in China. And I’m certainly hopeful that our social distancing will allow us to flatten the curve.

I would say this: If you need help, come to the hospital. We’re here for you, and we’re not closing. Otherwise, stay home, and stay safe.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Amy Phuong: “It hit me. We’d been planning so long, and now, our wedding is not going to happen.”

21st Century Plague: Coronavirus in Atlanta
Amy Phuong and Kerry O’Brate

Photograph by Audra Melton

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Amy Phuong—vice president of government relations for the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena—describes how she and her husband quickly changed their planned 200-guest wedding into a small, livestreamed affair. (Phuong was interviewed on March 23.)

My wedding was set for March 28. We had everything planned. There were all the last-minute details that needed to be buttoned-up, but it was in position. I even had a final walk-through at the venue on March 4. We’d invited 200 people. I checked in with a few out-of-town guests in case they were having different thoughts [due to COVID-19]. They all responded, Nope, we’re good.

Mentally we were just ready to have this wedding. We had a very fluid wedding planned to begin with. It would be lots of food, beverages, dancing. The biggest worry was whether it was going to rain or not.

Even that week [of March 9], I started out feeling like, Okay, our wedding is so soon there’s no way it’s going to be impacted by any of the limits, the public bans, or the shelter in place stuff. Even though Italy at that time had made a turn for the worse, Kerry’s family is from Spain, and we felt good because they weren’t impacted the way Italy was. Then we got to Wednesday, and that’s when it dramatically switched. That’s when the Hawks had their final game. The NBA suspended the season. That was the same evening that Trump instituted the travel ban from Europe. Kerry’s family would not be able to make it.

It hit me Friday night. We’d been planning so long, and now, our wedding is not going to happen. It was emotional. It was helpful that the city told us we couldn’t have it anymore [by restricting public gatherings to under 50 people]. That made it a little easier, actually. Emotionally we didn’t want to put our family and close friends having to choose between their health and [our] wedding. It’s a celebratory time and you can’t give us a hug?

We thought, What’s preventing us from still getting married? So we went to the courthouse to get our marriage license the last day that the court was still open. That was Monday the 16th. We pulled up the weather app to look for a date when it wasn’t going to rain. It said Thursday. Bill Bolling [the founder of Atlanta Community Food Bank who was officiating] said, “Pick a pretty spot.” I thought, let’s just pick our neighborhood park, Cabbagetown Park. When Kerry and I first started dating, it was midway between our houses. The florist adjusted very quickly. She ended up doing this beautiful bouquet, last minute, finding what she could that morning. The photographers were supposed to travel for an out-of-town wedding that day that ended up being postponed, so they were available to take photos of us and still be socially distant.

My parents came, my sister. We had to keep it under 10, including the photographers. We had hand sanitizer. I picked up pastries from Alon’s that morning. We used Kerry’s Zoom account to do some livestreaming. We wanted to make sure family and friends got to be a part of it. On the virtual stream, somebody wore pearls, somebody put on a dress and make-up, someone wore a tuxedo t-shirt, one of the bridesmaids who couldn’t be there even wore her dress. There was a beautiful moment in the ceremony where Bill was addressing the virtual crowd. His remarks almost made the park feel like it was full. He did an affirmation: “Will you guys support this couple?” That was a beautiful moment, looking over at an iPhone on a tripod and hearing everyone say, “We will.”

We got back to the house, had some cake. We got hungry and Grindhouse was doing takeout. We had burgers and fries with my parents. We did a puzzle. We played Monopoly. We did a lot of yard work on Saturday.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen: “It’s sobering how your decision can change the direction of people’s lives.”

Atlanta 500: Meria CarstarphenFor our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Dr. Meria Carstarphen—superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools—describes her school system’s response to the virus and why minorities and the poor will be hit hardest by the crisis. (Carstarphen was interviewed on March 20.)

Right after Valentine’s day, one of my friends was going to Venice, Italy. While my friend was there, they shut down Carnival [due to coronavirus]. That was my reality check. I said to our team, “We need to prepare for the day when we have to shut down the district.” There were moments where I felt was pushing a wet noodle up a mountain. As things started escalating, we had to make decisions about staff travel, about kids and teams that had to go out of the state for sports. Should we be cancelling exchange programs? People were like, “You’re not really considering that?” I said, “We have to prepare a contingency plan that starts with the worst-case scenario.”

I tried to bring leaders together early. I remember reaching out to all the superintendents in the metro area. We had a process for emergency weather. I said, “It’s time we create a process for the coronavirus.”

The day when I said to my fellow superintendents that I’m considering closing the district even though we don’t have any cases—that was a bit of a shock. Even to myself. I work with children. So the idea that I would even put on the table this notion that they might not have a prom, they might not be able to play for the state championship, they might not be able to get closure in after 12 years of public school, that their moment gets snatched away from them? It’s sobering how your decision can change the direction of people’s lives.

I always believed we would be here at mitigation—not prevention, not containment. Mitigation was probably the only way we’d go given the spirit of our country, given we’re a democracy, given that people love their personal freedoms and their individual decision-making.

When the coronavirus closed Atlanta Public Schools, the district implemented a massive effort to continue offering free meals to its 52,416 students. Working with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, APS offers a bag of free groceries every Monday at four locations around town. The district hosts an additional giveaway on Tuesdays, and is offering meal service at 10 sites around town, including delivery of meals via the school bus system.

No one else is doing anything as comprehensive as we are when it comes to pushout of food. Our goal as of yesterday [March 19] was to be at 40,000 meals on any given day in a school district. We let everyone eat. As food supplies diminish or are late, and as staff continue to self-quarantine and find other challenges trying to come to work every day, we’ll have staffing shortages.

We have 110 routes that have multiple stops within a route to be able to do the biggest push of the food distribution. Any food that comes back, Goodr [a nonprofit that redirects surplus food back into communities that need it] takes all the extra meals and delivers to people’s doors. We also target specific apartment buildings, where maybe people can’t come out to the bus stop or don’t have a car or can’t walk to a school.

This is going to have a huge and disproportionate impact on black and brown and poor children. There’s no comprehensive strategy or support for them. When you’re in a city that has the label of being the most unequal city in America when it comes to income disparity, and you’re working with people who are already fragile and incredibly strained in the healthiest of economies, this is crushing. If you’re wealthy, you can still get the access to the things you need for your family. Our kids weren’t getting that at the outset. It took a pandemic to wake up some people to know that we have to support our marginalized brothers and sisters.

Someone asked, Why are you having a hard time getting people to come to work? I said, You can telework. These are low-paid workers, often with preexisting health conditions, often older. Even with a regular school year, they are struggling with daycare. Maybe they’re a grandmother who’s a bus driver raising three grandchildren. Some people really don’t understand what is happening for people in poverty.

For years we [in the United States] have not changed the way we do schooling. I go back to my high school 20 years later and it still looks like it did when I was in school. Now, in less than one week, the entire country is shifting on how we’re doing public education, when before it was such a battle to make some basic changes and adjustments from a policy level. In just a few days we’ve moved from a trial mode of innovation—adjusting to a couple of bad weather days—to digital learning at home with parents trying to support and the teacher is virtual.

Public schools have long been the canary in the coal mine. There used to be this theory that if you got a quality education and if you could graduate, it would be the great equalizer. You could break out of the cycle of violence and poverty and illiteracy because you have this education. But the data shows that in current times, an education alone is not enough. Whether it’s the water having lead in it, the violent environments, the pollution runoff—these were dramatically affecting whether kids could recover. An education isn’t enough anymore.

Right now, parents are getting an opportunity to spend time with their children, to love them, to talk to them, to engage with them, to reset some behaviors that, before, some parents said, I don’t have time to deal with that. Well, now you’re with your kids. Get to know them. Set some expectations about the relationship between the caregiver and the child. Spend some time learning about what your kid really knows and what they don’t know and come back prepared to support your schools. Come back prepared to have more patience and understanding about how much pressure educators are under to do the work that they are doing, which is far bigger than teaching and learning.

We’ve made schools responsible for everything. We are teachers, but we’re also nurses and police officers and caregivers. We bring food and jackets and we’re psychologists and healthcare providers. Schools have been burdened with so much from society that teachers have often said, We don’t get the time to do our core purpose, which is teaching. We spend more time figuring out how to get food to people, how to get them healthcare, how to provide transportation.

We could actually rebuild pre-K through 12 institutions to be focused on children and learning. It’s an opportunity I hope we don’t miss.

[The pandemic] will forever change us. The country, the world. How we rearrange the priorities of funding in government. But that only happens if we collaborate. It has raised to our communities how important leadership is, and how important it is that we come back from all of this with the hearts and smarts to be better as we serve the communities who are looking to us to help them, finally. The fragility of all of it weighs on my heart and my mind.

My worst fear is that the most vulnerable people—the people I serve—will be hit the hardest. That our leadership will never learn their lesson and that we come back from it all not being stronger but allowing the divides to stand.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Pastor Dock Hollingsworth: “How do we understand God in the midst of crisis and suffering and fear?”

For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Dock Hollingsworth—senior pastor Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church—describes the how the virus has impacted funeral services and the role of existential hope. (Hollingsworth was interviewed on March 17)

Wednesday, March 11, was a turning point. We were here for the Wednesday night services. There was still a lot of levity. A 94-year-old man came up to me and said, “Boy, I was relieved that this is targeting people 60 to 80 since it’s been so long since I was 80.” By Thursday morning we were in a whole different mode. I was in a peer group with other Atlanta pastors. Everyone was asking, “Who’s cancelling Sunday? What measures are you taking?”

How do you keep a ministry going when touch is forbidden? How do we check on the shut-ins? How do I appropriately respond? We don’t have a rulebook for this.

For the first time today, somebody said, “We’re making all these plans as if none of us is going to get this virus.” The probability is, if it doesn’t enter our staff it will enter our church community.

Every industry has something peculiar that they’re facing. How do we do funerals and memorial services? If we do have a death in our community, it’s our practice to come together as a community and tell the stories. We can’t do that. An interment can’t wait. The staff here will do small graveside services and we’ll encourage families to push a memorial service into the future.

We are in the holy season of Lent right now. It’s already designed to be a season of introspection and asking the big questions. So in many ways this makes the Lenten questions more real and more pressing because the ground is shaky under people. But personally the ground doesn’t feel that shaky to me. Because I have a different kind of existential hope. We may see people turning to the church to ask, Are there answers there that perhaps I’ve been making fun of for a long time? This is an opportunity to live inside a hope that is not built on markets, or how many widgets you can sell.

This Sunday [March 22] we’re doing a livestream of the service, and I do have to speak a pastoral word into this anxiety. So I’m trying to figure out that now. What do you say that’s pastoral and hopeful and grounded in reality?

How do we understand God in the midst of crisis and suffering and fear? A theology that moves into loving action is a wholesome theology. I’ve actually experienced less fear [in conversation with members] and more conversations about what kind of opportunity this is to be a loving witness and agent of God’s love in the world. Two women who stopped me yesterday who said, “We’re cooped up in the house so please tell us which of our older church members need grocery runs or pharmacy runs.” That’s what I mean.

You can watch the sermon Hollingsworth gave on March 22 here; it begins at the 18-minute mark.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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