Slam-Packed Stores and Ghost Towns Both Signs of Life Under COVID-19

Signs and crime tape cordon off Railroad Park’s playgrounds and exercise area, but park patrons were using the 19 acres for all kinds of activities on Saturday. (Source: Tom Gordon)

Life under COVID-19 is a cognitive dissonance-inspiring trip on the merry-go-round

Scenes flashing by run the gamut from grocery stores that are swamped with people to isolated city streets where a lone person or two are walking.

“There are two parallel but different worlds happening,” a commenter on the Facebook page for Jon Anderson of Hoover said. “You have a lot of folks staying home and then there is another group still going to work and living life not that much differently,” he reported.

Jefferson County residents have been asked to restrict their exposure to other people. Seventy-one people in the county have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, though doctors warn that confirmed cases are the tip of the iceberg with this virus. The county Health Department has ordered all non-essential businesses and services to close indefinitely as of Friday at 5 p.m. The order also prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people.

With large department stores closed, Doug Demmons of Birmingham reported Friday that The Summit “looks like Christmas morning without the lights or the joy.”

A few stores were open Saturday at The Summit, but only Trader Joe’s was hip-deep in business.

The same was true of the U.S. 280 Wal-Mart, Publix and Winn-Dixie groceries. Shelves are gradually being restocked after the initial run and hoarding spree from last week. But even though the infamous toilet paper and paper towels are included in that restocking, those supplies don’t last.

Big box stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot appeared to be doing a bustling business.

Pam Yarley said her brother, Jeff, went to Lowe’s in Trussville on Saturday.

“He wore a mask and gloves and was the only one. He was surprised that even the cashiers were not wearing gloves. He said it seemed like people didn’t get it. Sad,” she said.

Gail Volk West of Birmingham said her son is in the home improvement business and went to Lowe’s in Homewood on Friday.

“He couldn’t believe how many people were spending a lot of time in the garden center and looking at paint chips. These are not essential items,” she said.

In neighborhoods throughout the Birmingham area, residents were isolating themselves but socializing to some extent from the end of their driveways and through backyard fences, as were Vicki Clemmer of Birmingham and Pamela Dugan of Blount Springs.

Dugan said she makes trips to the grocery and to physical therapy with her husband, Jim, but otherwise sticks to the house.

Plenty of people were out in Railroad Park this weekend, mostly in small clusters or keeping several feet of distance between them. (Source: Tom Gordon)

Carla Jean Whitley reported that Forest Park was quieter than usual, “though people are still playing golf despite the golf course being closed.”

Meanwhile, Bush Hills was a ghost town, Jane Archer reported.

Some Birmingham residents were out and socializing Saturday in downtown Birmingham but not in bars, eateries, churches or interior spaces where gathering is prohibited. Railroad Park’s 19 acres were a hub of activities except those involving use of playground and exercise equipment. Those areas are now cordoned off by strips of yellow and black tape commonly used to cordon off crime scenes, with “Closed Temporarily” signs taped to nearby posts.

Food Service Doing What It Can

Meanwhile, at the Red Cat Coffee House along a stretch of First Avenue South bordering the park, signs were urging customers to enter and get takeout or to call in their orders. In the interior, which was empty of diners, another sign told customers not to touch pastries displayed on the counter but to let gloved staffers get them.

Still another sign illustrated the economic toll the COVID-19 virus threat is taking on food service businesses, not only in Alabama, but around the country.

“Our staff’s hours and income (have) been drastically cut due to so many customers staying at home,” a message on the sign stated and listed a site to which patrons could donate.

To make up a bit of that revenue, the Queen’s Park cocktail bar near the corner of First Avenue and 24th Street North was marking happy hour – with no customers inside. Bar management had set up an outside display of beverages and menus and was selling cocktail ingredients and miniatures or larger bottles of liquor that the patrons could use to make their own cocktails.

Co-owner Larry Townley said the bar was selling cocktails to those who wanted a drink and wanted to drink the beverage right there on the sidewalk. So far, Birmingham police had been “lenient” with that, he said.

“If people are wanting to drink on the streets and that kind of stuff, they’re kinda turning a blind eye to it to make sure they’re there for the more important crimes instead of worrying about … people having an open container,” Townley said.


Spiritual Needs Live On

Patrons of another kind, those seeking absolution for their sins, were on hand for Saturday confessions at the Cathedral of St. Paul, but instead of lining up outside a confessional in the cathedral sanctuary, they were lined up and spread apart on the steps outside the cathedral’s doors.

‘Socially distant’ parishioners wait on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral to give their confessions on the porch of the adjacent parish rectory. (Source: Tom Gordon)

The Rev. Bryan Jerabek, the cathedral pastor, was hearing confessions, cordoned off by a curtain on the front porch of the cathedral rectory.

“This enables us to keep the now-famous ‘social distancing’ a little more easily and to have some air flow to help,” Jerabek said in a recent email to parishioners. Jerabek announced Tuesday that all parish activities at St. Paul’s, as well as those at other parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, were being suspended.

That means that Sunday Masses are no longer open to the public. Jerabek conducted a Sunday Mass and live streamed it, as many other churches in Jefferson and Shelby counties were doing.


Not Even Seeing Family

The order banning gatherings of 10 or more and recommendations to stay 6 feet away from others have two purposes – to protect you from viruses other people might be carrying and to protect other people from viruses you might unwittingly be carrying.

Some people are making conscientious moves to protect their families simply by staying away from them. “We are keeping apart from the grandkids and their parents,” said Steve Ostaseski of Clay.  “I go fishing, but I never cross paths with others.”

Mary Hasselwander of Troy said she goes to the store. But, she said, “I see but keep my distance from the grands (kids); it’s really hard but it’s a must.”

Sometimes going out is unavoidable. Physician assistant Tesa Hodge of Auburn said she is still working at her clinic and is working with telehealth for patients who are sick.

Helping others through this period is worth a bit of finagling.

Like so many others, Birmingham attorney Sam Rumore and his wife, Patricia, had been keeping close to home.

But when Rumore got word that one of his clients, a 102-year-old man living in a nursing home, wanted to revise his will, he got to work.

“When you have a client like that, you don’t waste time, you want to get something done,” Rumore said.

Nursing homes across the state are under lockdown prohibiting visitors except in “compassionate care situations,” but Rumore’s desire to help his client revise his will seemed compassionate enough for the nursing home administrators.

“We were able to get it done, … we told them ahead of time what we wanted to do,” Rumore said. “And when we got there, they had to take our temperature, we had to sign in, we had to fill in all the forms and everything, they put us in a separate room where we wouldn’t be in contact with other people, and we brought witnesses and notaries … we had to wear gloves and had the masks and everything. But it was a beautiful experience and … it was one of those things that shows how you can get business done, I suppose, if you just try.”