The coronavirus pandemic has forced enormous changes on society. The Reporter asked local experts in various fields — from arts to religion, urban planning to politics — what lessons the pandemic has taught them about what works well in a crisis, and what needs to change.

The participants included Rabbi Spike Anderson of Sandy Springs’ Temple Emanu-El synagogue; Dunwoody Mayor Lynn Deutsch; Ryan Gravel, the founder of the Atlanta BeltLine and consultant on Atlanta’s urban design plan; and Alison Hamil, who painted a pandemic mural for the city of Brookhaven. (Gravel’s commentary combines excerpts from a recent post on his website with comments he provided to the Reporter.)

Alison Hamil

Alison Hamil.

Artists have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. In an industry that was already undervalued, artists are struggling now more than ever. But there is a silver lining – society is no longer able to ignore the socioeconomic problems that are being exposed by the crisis.

Considered “non-essential” workers, artists have to constantly fight to prove their relevance and benefit to society. Most artists struggle to meet their basic needs because of a lack of public arts funding and an underlying belief that art should be free. Study after study shows the massive economic value of the arts, but we’ve been making that argument for years and it’s gotten us nowhere.

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate some of our basic assumptions about what makes a good life. Should economic growth and accumulation of wealth always be the end goal? What about fun, beauty, and enjoyment of the present moment? Artists have a knack for helping us experience all of those things. Let’s take this opportunity to shift our values and elevate artists to the level of respect and dignity they deserve.

This is our chance to rebuild the industry in a way that will allow artists to flourish. Now is a great time for institutions to invest in public art, which can unite and uplift the community while also employing artists who may otherwise be out of work. Going forward, artists need opportunities to create and display their work without having to worry about keeping a roof over their heads. Whether through the private or public sector, artists need continued support and a safety net to get through times like these. It is time for us to take care of each other, and to say goodbye to the myth of the starving artist once and for all.

Ryan Gravel

Ryan Gravel.

A recent hot-take from the Twittersphere is that COVID-19 will turn the tide on a decades-long movement of re-urbanization. Some people suggest that our short-term need to be physically distanced from each other will remind us why we love low-density, car-oriented sprawl. I think that’s an overreaction, of course, but it speaks to at least one underlying truth. While urban living comes with many advantages, sometimes we just want some space.

When the crisis of this pandemic is behind us, I don’t think it will change whether we want to live in cities, but I do hope it will change how we live in them. I’ve written before that I’m living my dream – that my Atlanta BeltLine thesis is slowly becoming real and I’m lucky to live and work on its route. The difficulty of getting people to not use it as much, and to physically distance themselves when they do, speaks volumes about the kinds of infrastructure we need to endure crises like this.

The fact that it’s so congested, even during a global pandemic, illustrates a pent-up demand for a public realm that is designed for our increasingly crowded urban life. We need to finish the BeltLine, of course, but we also need more public spaces – more and wider sidewalks and massive new regional parks where we can really get away from each other.

Cities need both active and passive open spaces. They serve different purposes. Large, expansive natural parks that are not filled with sports fields, playgrounds, splash pads and other highly programmed areas are just as important because they give us a chance to get away from other people – something that is really important in times like these.

Every great city has great open spaces and oftentimes, they’re what we love and remember most about our experiences there. Think of Paris without the Tuileries or New York City without Central Park. We know intuitively that investing in an infrastructure of wide open spaces will come with significant costs – but also with multiple benefits. In addition to making us stronger and more resilient, those open spaces will also make our city the kind of place we want to live. The need to physically distance ourselves from each other is essential during COVID19, but it’s also just a good metric for designing the cities we love.

Rabbi Spike Anderson

Rabbi Spike Anderson

We have never experienced anything like coronavirus as a society. Our synagogue, like religious institutions everywhere, is made up of individuals who are increasingly experiencing real angst and fear related to their jobs, their health and that of their loved ones, and feelings of isolation. In short, the “unknown” looms more distinctly than it has for us in living memory.

I believe that, in some ways, our synagogue was built for times like these. If our mission is to bring light into a darkening world (hope and goodness), and provide an avenue for spiritual development with like-minded people, now is the time when these strengths are most poignant.

Temple Emanu-El has always been “high touch,” as opposed to “high-tech.” One of our first challenges was how to do both. If we could not bring our people to their Judaism, we would have to find a way to bring Judaism to our people, wherever they were.

Clearly, our millennial Rabbis were invaluable in helping us make the vital changes, as well as to acclimate our congregants as fast as possible.

Our in-person daily classes now were to be conducted and attended via Zoom. Our Friday night Shabbat services, now conducted in an empty sanctuary, were to be experienced via Facebook live. Our social interactions were now “face-to-face” from the safety of our own homes. Pastoral care, which I always think is best face-to-face, was now screen-to-screen. Not surprisingly, the numbers of congregants who attend through these new mediums has doubled, and in some cases, tripled. Ample time plus acute need has led to increased engagement.

A saving grace has been the mobilization of groups of congregants who make daily calls to others in our congregation. This type of outreach ensures that no one falls through the cracks and we can be there to help them if they need food or medicine. As important, these daily phone calls bring connection, even if it is with congregants whom they do not (yet) know.

There is a Hebrew expression attributed to the prime minister of Israel, Golda Meir, as she led her country against enemies that pressed its borders: “Ayn Brayra,” which translates as, “There is no choice.” Religion (paired with science) is what will get us through this plague. It offers hope, connection, and the understanding that we are all part of the human experience, even if this is new to us. The hope is for better days, soon. The connection is with one another, and God. And the link to human experience allows us to see ourselves as something greater, and thus, far from alone.

Mayor Lynn Deutsch

Mayor Lynn Deutsch.

As mayor, I have been incredibly proud of Dunwoody staff’s ability to transition rather seamlessly from a traditional office setting to a virtual scenario. The city continues to move forward and has actually been able to expedite some public works projects as a result of the reduction in vehicle traffic. I am impressed with the quality of work that continues to happen, permitting, inspections, park construction and more are signs that Dunwoody is open for business.  As we continue to travel through this challenging time, I expect that the next step for Dunwoody, like many businesses, will be a hybrid of some work occurring in the office and some work continuing to be conducted virtually.

We’ve learned to be flexible and creative, but we haven’t forgotten the importance of face-to-face communication. Our officers are on the streets. Our public works and parks teams are on-site. Our public meetings are more meaningful and productive when we can actually see and interact with the public. We can only do so much for so long virtually. That’s why I look forward to reopening City Hall when the time is right and in a way that’s safe for all. Because of this pandemic, things might look different. But our commitment to this community is unchanged.