Restless and ready to work, Georgia gets back to business

Julio-Cesar Chavez/Reuters
Barber Tommy Thomas, who has been cutting hair for 50 years, gives his longtime customer Fred Bentley a haircut after the Georgia governor allowed a select number of businesses to open during the coronavirus restrictions in Atlanta April 24, 2020.
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For starters, the restaurant will have about 300 seats, not the usual 700-plus. The breezes that blow through the screened-in windows will hopefully offer plenty of circulation. And all the servers, of course, will have masks and gloves. But make no mistake, The Crab Shack is preparing to open Monday.

After Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said businesses could start to reopen this weekend, the Peach State offered a taste of what America might look like when it emerges from its coronavirus lockdowns. “I’m excited and, yes, I’m nervous,” says the owner of The Crab Shack, capturing the atmosphere around Savannah.

Why We Wrote This

“Welcome to life as a lab rat,” said one Georgia resident this weekend, unsure whether to follow the state’s loosening of coronavirus restrictions. Yet the general mood was one of cautious excitement.

Others are more cautious. Alonzo Wright Jr. knows Georgia has not yet met the guidelines laid out by the White House to safely lift stay-at-home orders. The state isn’t even close, really. And so when the decision to reopen his Beastmode Fitness came, he had a realization. He would clean. He would expand to create more space for social distancing. But he wouldn’t reopen, not yet.

“We closed down for a reason, and I haven’t seen enough change yet to reopen.”

One day the parking lot of Nottingham Plaza off Skidaway Road was empty – as it had been for nearly five long weeks of a pandemic lockdown.

Then the next day, on Friday, at 11:13 a.m., cars appeared – lots of them. “Like a regular summer day,” one shopkeeper observed.

This weekend, Georgia began rolling back stay-at-home coronavirus restrictions in hopes of restarting the U.S. economy. And Nottingham Plaza ZYS Hair Studio owner LaZharia Morris could palpably feel the stakes – for her customers, for her stylists, and for a thriving business she grew from the ground up.

Why We Wrote This

“Welcome to life as a lab rat,” said one Georgia resident this weekend, unsure whether to follow the state’s loosening of coronavirus restrictions. Yet the general mood was one of cautious excitement.

As appointments flooded in, Ms. Morris scrambled to manage expectations and check off a list of requirements put out by the state cosmetology board. Hand-washing and mask-wearing would be required. Importantly, customers are being asked to sign a “hold harmless” waiver so that business owners can’t be sued if someone becomes ill.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Before long, she had to run to Walmart, out of printer ink. As customers flocked in, she realized she needed more waivers, more posters, more information.

Ms. Morris’ harried morning offers a glimpse into how America might begin to reemerge from isolation – hair askew, facing a world where the barber makes you sign a contract and where sit-down diners will, for the foreseeable future, be greeted by servers in masks and gloves.

The question is how quickly it should happen. In beginning to reopen, Georgia defied White House guidelines, which call for, among other things, declining COVID-19 cases for 14 days and a robust testing system. Georgia has neither.

But there are signs of restlessness in some parts of the country. In the South, other states are beginning to reopen. An anti-lockdown protest brought thousands to Madison, Wisconsin, this weekend. And in Southern California, some beaches were crowded.

In coastal Georgia, the mood was one of buzzy excitement. For Ms. Morris, this weekend marked a return to clarity and purpose after weeks of wandering through a kind of fog.

“My boyfriend is an entrepreneur, too – he owns a recording studio – and he was begging me not to reopen, but I told him, ‘I’ve got six ladies here who have mouths to feed and rents to pay.’ I’m not going to say the governor is stupid. We needed this. This virus isn’t going away. We have to learn to live with it at some point. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

The decision is a controversial one, among some here and certainly in other parts of the United States. The concern is that the desire to return to something like normal could undo the gains made by social distancing.

Indeed, health officials say that until there is a vaccine or an effective means of treatment, social distancing is the only viable medical path. A study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington suggests Georgia should begin reopening after June 22.

“The ethical issue here isn’t a question of right and wrong – as it usually isn’t – but how do you balance two competing rights?” asks Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at Emory University in Atlanta, referring to health and economic welfare. “We have to decide which one we’re going to favor – and when.”

“We’re just not ready”

Those choices are playing out on both sides at Nottingham Plaza. From the outside, it’s just another nondescript L-shaped strip mall on an urban fringe in America. But behind mirrored shop doors, whole worlds are coming back to life.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Alonzo Wright Jr. sits on a bench at Beastmode Fitness, his Savannah, Georgia, gym, on April 24, 2020, the day hard-hit Georgia began to reopen select businesses amid the coronavirus crisis. Mr. Wright, however, is not opening yet. "Not enough has changed," he says. "We're not ready."

At 11:33 a.m. on Friday, all eight chairs are occupied at Fatou’s, an African hair-braiding shop. In the tattoo shop next door, A Fifth of Ink, the owner is cautiously reopening – by appointment only at first, but already with customers in chairs.

Yet as his plaza colleagues rush to open, Alonzo Wright Jr. raises his head as the front door opens at Beastmode Fitness, his gym.

“We’re closed. You got my number? Call me.”

He’s in touch with six local gym owners, and only one opened Friday. After preemptively closing his gym in March, Mr. Wright, newly married, moved into a new house. The idling hours were spent painting walls and otherwise nesting. The gym benches began gathering dust, and for weeks he didn’t care. But when GOP Gov. Brian Kemp “threw his curveball” last Monday, announcing that businesses could reopen Friday, Mr. Wright returned to the gym and had a realization.

He knew Georgia remained far behind on testing and setting up contact tracers to track the spread of the virus. He knew the tension between Mr. Kemp and federal guidelines, and the deadlier impact the virus has had on working-class African American communities. He had soaked up every news detail of the pandemic. Mayors, governors, and the president were openly bickering over a way forward. And here he was, faced with the question of reopening the country – by opening his gym.

“Welcome to life as a lab rat,” he thought.

As he looked around at the well-worn green carpeting, he saw what he must do: His trainers were already using Zoom and FaceTime to do one-on-one workouts. “I realized that this is something else. It requires bigger thinking.”

So he called in his trainer crew – “the muscle” – to start moving equipment around. The carpet is coming up, a deep clean commencing. And shortly after noon that day, Mr. Wright’s attorney appeared to start discussions about expanding the gym into a soon-to-be-vacant unit next door.

“Each person has to do what they think is right, knowing that you can’t be mad at any one person,” says Mr. Wright. “I also think that this is part madness. But if I’m speaking only for myself, we’re not opening the gym because we’re just not ready. We’re not ready.”

“We closed down for a reason, and I haven’t seen enough change yet to reopen,” he adds.

Such personal deliberations in part of Savannah point to similar deliberations nationwide. Polls released in recent weeks say Americans are wary of reopening too soon. But many American also say they can be responsible if shown a little more trust.

“This is us playing out over and over again – the inherent tension in the American psyche of not really being good at understanding and balancing collective sacrifice,” says Dr. Wolpe. “Yes, we do it in war and extreme situations. But what makes this so interesting is that we’re not sure how extreme this is.”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Capt. Jack Flanigan, owner of the sprawling Crab Shack restaurant on Tybee Island, Georgia, peers at his open-air dining area on April 25, 2020, to inspect what he calls "a new start" for restaurants -- including cutting the capacity in half in order to allow for social distancing between dining groups. Still, the restaurant will be able to seat 300 at one time. Staff will wear gloves and masks as the restaurant opens for the first time in nearly six weeks at noon on Monday.

Scenes from a 300-seat restaurant

Some 20 miles from Nottingham Plaza, beneath sprawling canopies of live oak, power washers roar, glasses clink in dishwashers, people shout across parking lots and lean into truck windows to talk.

It is Saturday at 10:33 a.m., two days before the region’s largest restaurant, The Crab Shack, resumes dine-in service.

After nearly six weeks of being laid off, one server waves and grins as she reports for a deep-clean shift. “I am ready to work!” she shouts for all to hear. “Plus, I can’t take my wife anymore!”

Thirty years ago, Capt. Jack Flanigan, an offshore charter fisherman, turned a weekend crab boil at his fish camp dock on Chimney Creek into what became a 728-seat institution. The Crab Shack serves mounds of low-country boil – Old Bay-infused new potatoes, shellfish, sausage, corn hunks – amid moss-draped sunsets and clacking marsh hens. It is, as general manager Justin Fowler points out, “an experience as much as a meal.”

But what experience can The Crab Shack offer? As he readies to open at noon Monday, Mr. Fowler has halved the number of seats to about 300. Given that the restaurant is essentially a massive screened-in porch with breezes from the creek, “we’re hoping that will make people more comfortable,” he adds. Servers will be in masks and gloves.

Mr. Flanigan says he knows the importance of this decision.

“I’m excited and, yes, I’m nervous,” he says. “In one way, it feels like all of us are suddenly living in a petri dish. But I also know that we’ll survive. We’ll make it. It’s a new start for us, but we’re going to approach it the same way we always have: Let the customer tell us what they want.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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