ALPHARETTA, Ga. — The sky was blue, the sun was rising, and as the death toll from the coronavirus continued to soar across much of America, the fountains switched on in Avalon, a development of restaurants and shops in a wealthy corner of suburban Atlanta. It was time for life to resume, Georgia’s governor had decided, so a masked worker swept the threshold of Chanel. A clerk brushed off windows at Fab’rik that had been gathering dust. A gardener fluffed pink roses in planters along the sidewalks, where signs on doors said what so many had been waiting to hear.
“Open,” read one.
“Welcome back!” read another.
“Yay!!” read another, as a great American experiment got underway in a place promising “the luxury of the modern South” with none of the death.
Versions of this pledge are now being made all over the country as stay-at-home-orders are being lifted, businesses are opening, and millions of Americans now find themselves free to make millions of individual decisions about how to calibrate their sense of civic duty with their pent-up desires for the old routines and indulgences of life.
In this grand gamble, Georgia has gone first, with Gov. Brian Kemp (R) dismissing public health experts who’ve warned that opening too soon could cause a catastrophic surge of deaths, placing his faith instead in the citizens of Georgia to make up their own minds about what risks and sacrifices they were willing to accept.
“God bless,” he’d said as he gave the order to reopen hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors, tattoo shops, restaurants and retailers across the state. That order would be supported in the days ahead with data on an official Georgia website claiming that confirmed cases in the state’s hardest-hit counties were in steady decline since the reopening. The claim would turn out to be erroneous and Kemp would issue an apology, but such details were not on many minds in Avalon, where a middle-aged man calibrated his way into a Starbucks, deciding to stand mask-free before a 60-year-old barista nervous on her first day back at work.
“Venti dark with cream and 12 sugars?” he breathed cheerfully, then headed outside into a glorious spring day.
It was all so orderly in these first post-lockdown moments in Avalon, a place that had epitomized the rewards of upward mobility since opening in 2014, a date chiseled into the stone pillar at the entrance. Avalon had a long boulevard with a green central plaza. It had fountains. It had wide sidewalks and trees strung with lights. It had fresh impatiens and sculpted shrubs and music floating out of hidden speakers, a dreamscape of suburban aspiration that was what many middle-class Americans meant when they talked about wanting to restart their lives.
Now there were signs here and there that read “better together, apart.” There were green one-way arrows painted on the sidewalks in anticipation of a surge in foot traffic. And soon, the voice of Frank Sinatra was drifting out of the bushes and into the cool morning as the walkers began arriving, resuming their regular loops past the glass-front shops offering a semblance of pre-virus life — new iPhones in the Apple store, new Tesla in the Tesla dealership, new mauve pillows at West Elm and new white jeans at a store called Free People, which was how people were trying to feel.
“The future is bright,” read the words on one window.
“Do not enter if you have a fever or other symptoms of Covid-19,” read another, and a woman and her husband breezed past it into Anthropologie.
“You’re open!” she said to the clerk.
“Welcome in,” the clerk said through a mask as the woman, not in a mask, skipped the hand sanitizer at the front and wandered through the racks, touching a yellow sundress here, a striped sweater there, smelling the lavender candles and after a few minutes, walking outside.
“I just want to feel normal, I guess,” she said.
“It’s a personal choice,” said her husband, mask-free in shorts and a polo. “If you want to stay home, stay home. If you want to go out, you can go out. I’m not in the older population. If I was to get it now, I’ve got a 90 percent chance of getting cured. Also, I don’t know anybody who’s got it.”
They strolled hand in hand down the sidewalk as “I Love Vegas” played through the speakers, untroubled by the reality that Fulton County, where Avalon is located, had more than 3,600 coronavirus cases and 151 deaths so far, numbers that were growing even as people began sitting down for a glass of wine at Cru. So far, most of those cases were in the part of the county closer to Atlanta — the poorer and more heavily African American part — which was not the typical demographic of Avalon, where shoppers tended to be wealthy and white. At a shoe store called Marmi, Debbie McGuiness, a clerk, stared out of the window at the people whose pandemic calibrations seemed so different from her own.
“I live an hour away and was driving in this morning, only me on the road, and I was thinking, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ” she said through a mask. “And you see some out there jogging, no mask on. I think their confidence is rising.”
A few doors down, Tamara Mitchum had started her shift with a prayer — “Lord, I know you’re bigger than corona” — put on her mask, and now she was turning to one of her first customers, a woman holding up a green bathing suit.
“What about a little skirt to go with it?” the woman said.
“For your height, this would be perfect,” Mitchum said.
Meanwhile, outside Crate & Barrel, June Sheets, a retiree, was loading her trunk with a box of new acrylic plates and an outdoor planter for a luncheon she was hosting.
“This is glorious — I think the news is blowing it all out of proportion. The wineries are opening this weekend for indoor service and we’re going there tomorrow. I can’t wait!”
Outside Urban Outfitters, Jennifer Kiernan was having a glass of wine as her daughter shopped inside.
“Oh my God, this feels great — I love it,” she said, explaining that she assumed that she and everyone around her was healthy. “I think people would not be out if they had been exposed to anyone with corona.”
Inside Parisian Nail Salon:
“Who specializes in ingrown? Because I have an ingrown,” Greta Holland, who was in her 60s, said, extending her hand through a hole in an acrylic partition so she could get a manicure from a woman on the other side, wearing a mask.
Holland, who was not wearing a mask, turned to chat with her friend in the next chair, who was reclining for her pedicure.
“If this is risking my life, then I’ve been risking my life going to Costco,” said Betty Luke. “I went to the antique mall yesterday on Highway 9 and it was just like — it was like freedom. We have to get out. We have to live in this world, and if we don’t —”
“It’s not living,” said Holland, who checked her nail color — “Oh I love it!” — paid $32 and began to put on a surgical mask, but then decided not to.
“I hate these things,” she said, heading back outside into the sun, where the music had switched to “Party in the U.S.A.” and the sidewalks were getting more crowded with people walking three and four across along Avalon Boulevard. Many were no longer paying attention to the green one-way arrows, the dashes of fluorescent tape marking six-foot increments or the clerk at the front of Urban Outfitters offering Purell.
“Hand sanitizer?” she said to the people walking by. “Hand sanitizer?”
Shannon Lloyd headed for a rack of fleece tops.
“Oh, this is cute — is this pajamas?” she said, holding a pair up.
“I love that,” said Amber Medley, Lloyd’s nanny, who had gotten the coronavirus back in March, nearly went to the hospital, and was now enjoying her retail outing mask-free, assuming that she was no longer contagious and also immune to the virus.
“This is good for our mental health,” Medley said.
“It’s a distraction from what is going on in the real world,” said Lloyd.
A few doors down, Beth Painchaud was pushing her 88-year old mother in a wheelchair around carousels of floral blouses.
“How are you feeling, Mom?” said Painchaud, 60, placing a bare hand on her shoulder.
“Feels good to be out browsing,” said her mother, Joan Painchaud.
They had already had cocktails and appetizers at Kona Grill, and now they were drifting around, not buying anything — “just escaping,” said Beth, who wheeled her mother out of the store and onto a sidewalk that was only getting busier, filling with mask-free walkers, mask-free shoppers and mask-free children running around a fountain.
In the warm afternoon, a group of teenage girls were smushing together for selfies in front of Brooks Brothers. Neighbors were meeting each other for cocktails and hugging.
“Yeah, I’m going to do the laser and the filler,” a woman was saying to her friend as they shared a bottle of wine on the patio of Cru.
“I’m getting my nails done tomorrow — screw it,” said a nurse drinking a glass of wine on a bench after work, as the order of the morning was collapsing into the results of a thousand individual decisions.
On the sprawling green plaza, people began gathering elbow-to-elbow on blankets and lawn chairs, opening beers and bottles of wine.
“I think you have to live life,” said Jeff Lampel, taking a sip of beer.
“When you start seeing where the cases are coming from and the demographics — I’m not worried,” agreed his friend Scott Friedel.
“I know what people are going to say — ‘Those selfish idiots are killing our old people!’ ” said Lampel.
“How do you give up a day like this — really, how?” Friedel said, enjoying the last rays of sun as the music kept playing and the crowds kept coming.
Along Avalon Boulevard, people were clustering at restaurants for their first dinners out, and at one of them, every table inside and outside was full, and people with done hair and done nails gathered hip to hip at the entrance to put in their names. They waited around the bar and they spilled out onto the sidewalk as sweating, masked waiters tried to weave around them with cocktails and trays of food, and out on the patio, two couples were talking about how they had decided it was okay to come out for dinner, okay not to wear masks, okay to share a plate of hummus, okay not to worry about spreading or catching the coronavirus, not here in Avalon.
“If people had symptoms, they wouldn’t be out,” said Jeff Weisberg, sipping a cocktail.
“If I was immune compromised, I wouldn’t be out,” said his wife.
“We are not topping the charts with deaths like they said we would,” said their friend, who began talking about how she felt President Trump had been “brainwashed by a bunch of liars” who had exaggerated the coronavirus threat, and when her husband said that he thought that all the restrictions were actually based on a “false narrative,” they all nodded. They dug into the hummus. And when Weisberg finished the last of his cocktail, he suggested his friend should try one too.
“Will I like it?” his friend said.
“Yeah, it’s got a little jalapeño in it,” Weisberg said, raising his voice over the louder and louder din of people enjoying themselves on a lovely evening in pandemic America.
“Isn’t this great?” he said. He flagged down one of the waiters who hurried over.
“I’ll take another spice mist,” he shouted.