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The stark marquee on The Tabernacle urges people to wear masks to shut down the COVID-19 pandemic.

One Year Later: A new ArtsATL series looks back at the era of the pandemic 

On March 7, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic still seemed a faintly distant, remote threat.

As I often did on weekend evenings, I went to see a performance — Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s Modern Myths at the Kennesaw State University Dance Theatre. There was a full house of people eager to see the production. Before the show, in the lobby, I remember some trepidation over the looming danger. There were a lot of elbow touches rather than hugs, fist pumps rather than handshakes. 

But people still milled about in small and intimate groups. When the topic turned to the predicted pandemic, there were mostly confused shrugs and nervous laughter. I remember telling someone, “I really don’t know yet how seriously I need to take this.” That was not an outlandish sentiment, nor an uncommon one. At the time, there were less than 30 reported cases in Georgia. The public was receiving a lot of mixed messages, from “there’s nothing to worry about” to “there’s everything to worry about.” Even the CDC talked about the immediate risk being “low.”

So we went inside the packed auditorium, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the dark as we watched the magic of dance — bodies gliding and moving in intimate synchronicity. Both pieces that night referenced tragedies of Greek mythology, probably an apt metaphor for what was to come.

That was a year ago. It was the last weekend of what I used to think of as “normal.”

The first sign of the “new” normal would come the following Tuesday, when superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman abruptly canceled his performance with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra one day before the show, citing “travel precautions” due to the coronavirus.

By Wednesday, March 11, it was like watching dominos start to fall, slowly and then with a sudden and unstoppable momentum. First, the World Health Organization formally labeled the COVID-19 as a global pandemic. That same day, the NBA announced that a player had contracted COVID-19 and the league would suspend play. 

The year of the pandemic
The headline from last March, when theaters and venues all across the city went dark.

By Thursday, every major sports league in America had followed the NBA’s lead. Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered New York City’s Broadway to go dark at 5 p.m. that afternoon. Closer to home, the High Museum of Art announced it would close to the public, and the ASO canceled its weekend performances of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.”

Other institutions were still open for business, though “closely monitoring” the situation. The Atlanta Opera was in the middle of its run of Porgy and Bess at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The Atlanta Ballet was ready to start a run of Giselle on the same stage. The Alliance Theatre planned to continue its performances. The Fox Theatre planned to remain open.

Within the next 24 hours, it all changed. COVID-19 had gone from the abstract to the real. There was no longer any question about the seriousness of the pandemic. The arts world, like most everything else, shut down.

“The courage to face those fears”

The 12 months since have seemed like an eternity . . . and the blink of an eye.

The effects of COVID-19 have been devastating and unprecedented in our lifetime. Nearly 600,000 people have lost their lives to it — more deaths than were lost in combat during World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and 9/11 combined. It has become tragic beyond description. We have lost friends, family and artists who felt like family because their work touched us on such a deep level.

The pandemic has upended our most basic daily routines. Many of us have spent the past year in near quarantine conditions. We have worn masks when we ventured out in public and socially distanced. Many of us have not hugged, or even touched, another human being in a year. I used to joke that my most sustained human contact was with Dolly, the checkout lady at my grocery store; after a while, that quip stopped being humorous.

Atlanta’s arts community has experienced upheaval and loss and uncertainty. But most of all, it has fought to retain its creative edge and to create, to find new ways to connect with an audience hungry to engage.  

The Atlanta Opera was the only major North American opera company to stage shows during the pandemic. The company purchased a circus tent and performed outdoors last fall with strict safety protocols. (Photo by Rafterman)

Over the next month, ArtsATL will publish a series of stories — “One Year Later” — that look back at the year of the pandemic. We will look at how institutions and individuals struggled to survive and continue producing work. We will look at the pivot to virtual performances. We will look at the theater community and how it plans to emerge from the pandemic. We will look at how artists were impacted on a personal level.

I have drawn strength from something glo’s Lauri Stallings said at the beginning of the pandemic in one of our first “In Our Own Words” stories: “As artists, we have spent our entire lives creating from ideas that can’t be seen. This virus cannot be seen. We will stand right now and have the courage to do the work and face those fears.”

Atlanta’s arts community has shown that courage and that resilience. At long last, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Three vaccines have rolled out and the numbers of people who have taken them are growing. There’s hope of gatherings again by summer and maybe, just maybe, a real fall season and venues with eager audiences.

A new normal is fast approaching and we have the opportunity to redefine and reshape and reinvent. We’re shedding our old skins, these burdensome pandemic skins, and will remerge fresh and new and breathing creative fire.

If there is grace to be found in the COVID-19 pandemic, that is surely part of it — the forced reimagining of what is possible.