The month of March brings a very unhappy birthday for the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia. March 2, 2020 bore the discovery, in Fulton County, of the state’s first known COVID cases. By March 12, governments and school districts were shutting down. By March 23, Georgia was fully in the grip of the pandemic, with Gov. Kemp issuing the first stay-at-home order

Deadly to thousands, life-changing to millions, the apocalyptic pandemic has been transformative more than most locals guessed in those early days. To mark the grim anniversary, the Reporter caught up with some local figures who we interviewed at the pandemic’s start and others who are feeling unanticipated impacts. 

Pandemic Then and Now: In March 2020, shoppers formed long lines inside the Kroger at City Walk on Sandy Springs Place in the crush to stock up before pandemic lockdowns. A year later, the Kroger has posted signs about a mask-wearing requirement and the chain is home to COVID-19 vaccinations. (File/Phil Mosier)

THE MUSICIANS

Joe Gransden, one of Atlanta’s busiest and most popular jazz musicians, predicted in mid-March 2020 that the pandemic shutdowns would have a “very scary” impact on the arts economy. How right he was.

“It’s extremely brutal out there,” Gransden said in a recent interview. “Some of the larger bands in town have folded, just disbanded.” For jazz and other arts that rely on smaller venues, the acts often “just can’t get people to come out and feel safe.”

Jazz musician Joe Gransden. (Special)

Granden said he was out of gigs until late August or early September, when some outdoor shows resumed and live-stream concerts became a phenomenon. Incorporated as a one-person limited liability company, Gransden was able to get loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But, he said, his family is still relying on the salary of his wife Charissa Gransden, an assistant director of fine arts at The Lovett School. “If I was single, I probably wouldn’t make it,” he said.

With cold weather and indoor shows, Gransden said he has his own health concerns, as there are “very few really safe places to play.” One whose precautions he is comfortable with and playing at weekly is Ray’s on the River, a Sandy Springs restaurant, where the band can get a large distance away from the patrons.

“It’s extremely brutal out there. Some of the larger bands in town have folded, just disbanded.”

Jazz musician Joe Gransden

While the novelty of live-stream concerts seems to have worn off, Gransden said, the many fans still enjoying them should remember to take advantage of another huge convenience of the technology. “It’s really easy from your home to throw a dollar in the kitty, or five bucks or 25 bucks,” he said. “If everybody put in a dollar to tip, those artists are going to do well again.”

For opera singer Kelsey Fredriksen, the last 12 months has been a virtual adjustment as well. In April 2020, the Chamblee resident led a virtual sing-along of the national anthem organized by the city of Brookhaven as part of a “Brookhaven Strong” pandemic unity event. That was just the beginning.

“I’ve only been doing virtual,” Frederiksen said about her performances over the past year. “I’m pretty cautious about staying in quarantine, and so I haven’t been taking any risks to go out.”

Opera singer Kelsey Fredriksen. (Special)

Close to this time last year, Fredriksen was waiting “on pins and needles” to hear how the Atlanta Opera would choose to move forward with its May production of “Madame Butterfly.” Eventually, the company canceled the performance. Since then, some companies have performed outdoors, including the Atlanta Opera, which staged performances in an open-sided tent at Brookhaven’s Oglethorpe University. Frederiksen said she has been too concerned about possible spread of the virus to participate. 

“There’s a lot of evidence that singing spews more germs farther, and the louder you sing, the further it goes,” she said. “It’s kind of depressing.”

But in the virtual world, she has remained employed as a staff singer at her church in Decatur, where individually recorded parts are put together, and she has shifted her business of piano and voice lessons online as well.

In some cases, Fredriksen said, her students are even learning at a faster pace than they were during in-person lessons. 

“Some of the kids nowadays, they’re just so attuned to the internet,” she said. “A couple of my students, they are just so good with a computer and just melding into it, that they just roll with the punches. Some of them are 5 years old and it’s just reality — this is how it goes. They don’t have much to compare it to.”

THE TELEWORK EXPERT

Just a few weeks into the pandemic, Johann Weber said in a Reporter commentary that there could be a silver lining for those fortunate enough to be off the front lines and able to telework. Weber, who manages the “Perimeter Connects” alternative commuting program for the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, predicted that the time- and money-saving aspects would make telework stick around for good. “The reality of work in 2021 may be something to celebrate,” he wrote at the time.

Johann Weber, program manager for the Perimeter Connects program of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts. (Special)

While it remains to be seen what post-pandemic work will be like, Weber said in a Feb. 8 presentation to the Dunwoody City Council that surveys show most workers have an appetite to continue with a permanent mix of in-person and remote work, and many large employers are planning for it.

Weber said Perimeter Connects recently got survey responses from 33 businesses representing about 24,000 office employees in Perimeter Center. 

About 66% of employers said they would have more remote work post-pandemic. Only 3% said there would be no remote work once things return to normal. About 45% of the employers surveyed said they would have more work-from-home opportunities in the future, but did not have any formal policies or plans in place. 

“[Offices] serve a very social function, as well as the actual productive work function.”

Johann Weber, Perimeter Connects

Perimeter Connects also synthesized about 40 different global studies on remote work from over the past year, surveying responses from 175,000 respondents.

According to the synthesized studies, many workers are ready to be back in an office, but 60% to 80% of employees want to work remote one or more days a week after the pandemic is over. 

“[Offices] serve a very social function, as well as the actual productive work function,” Weber said of the urge to an in-person return. “You don’t necessarily have to be in the same place to do your core work, but you would choose to be around people doing the same work, even if you had no need to coordinate with them.”

One piece of Perimeter Connects advice that the locally surveyed companies are often not following is to create a formal teleworking plan. “[Employers] are not directly addressing how that work is expected to be done,” Weber said, which may indicate they are still thinking of teleworking as a temporary tactic.

THE FAITHFUL

“Did you know that the Bible foretold that soon we can look forward to a world that is free of sickness, health [issues], crime and death?” reads the handwritten note recently mailed to a Sandy Springs address. 

It’s a message that once would have been delivered in person by Jehovah’s Witnesses in their famous door-knocking ministry, but now is being done by snail-mail as the Christian denomination continues its complete pandemic shutdown.

A handwritten note from a local Jehovah’s Witnesses member as part of the organization’s new remote replacement for its door-to-door ministry. (John Ruch)

The suspension of the door-to-door ministry was “earth-shattering for Jehovah’s Witnesses,” says Robert Hendriks, the organization’s U.S. spokesperson. The group’s name literally means spreading the word of God, and it has fought decades of battles against religious discrimination laws worldwide for the right to conduct the door-knocking.

“Now, all of sudden, it wasn’t a government telling us to stop… Now it was the organization saying, ‘You need to stop from going to door to door,’” said Hendriks. 

“We could never have imagined a year ago being where we are, and I have a suspicion that one year from now, we also will be amazed.”

Robert Hendriks, Jehovah’s witnesses

While some churches and synagogues fought for the right of exemption from shutdowns, Jehovah’s Witnesses shut down all in-person gatherings and activities early and have stayed remote. Hendriks said that is based on two principles: the sanctity of life and Jesus’s biblical command to love your neighbor. 

“Life is sacred. And why would you risk even one life because you have a personal preference to meet together in person?” he asks. Beyond health risks, he said, “it’s how our neighbor feels about our coming to his door now. And that — we don’t know when that will change… If they’re not comfortable, we’re not comfortable. We’re not going to force ourselves on anyone and nor should we.”

Like many secular organizations, the Jehovah’s Witnesses find the pandemic’s enforced distancing is accelerating some changes already underway and bringing some unexpected benefits. The organization’s door-knocking efforts already found fewer people at home in a mobile age, leading to experiments in telephone and letter-writing ministries that are now the highly organized new normal. Virtual meetings are often drawing more attendees than in-person versions, Hendriks said, especially for those with physical challenges.

“You just wonder where this is going,” Hendricks said. “We could never have imagined a year ago being where we are, and I have a suspicion that one year from now, we also will be amazed.”

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, that includes a possibility far more amazing than, say, whether teleworking will keep more people home to respond to door-knocking. The organization believes “this [pandemic] is not the work of God,” Hendriks said, but could be a sign of the return of Jesus predicted in the Bible’s book of Revelation, which comes after a rampage by the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” whose members include a personification of Pestilence. 

“We’ll see,” said Hendriks. “We don’t pretend to be prophets.”