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Washington Post Pulitzer Winner’s Tale of Two Avalons Paints a Deceptive Picture

The Washington Post can’t get its story straight about the suburban metro Atlanta city of Alpharetta. On April 25, one of the Post’s videographers posted footage of a deserted Avalon shopping development right after Gov. Brian Kemp’s initial reopening phase went into effect. Then on May 17, a featured Post article portrayed Avalon patrons “eating, drinking, touching and throwing caution to the wind.” One city, two stories, two weeks apart, show two very different Georgias.

Which one is the truth?

I spoke with Alpharetta mayor Jim Gilvin on Memorial Day to get his thoughts. I actually learned about the first piece–the video–from Gilvin, who said the videographer who posted it is a local. That video included remarks from the Alpharetta mayor.

As for the second piece, Gilvin said he can’t recall when he first learned of it, but he probably found it on Twitter since he searches “Alpharetta” most days.

“What an interesting perspective,” Gilvin said he tweeted. No one from the Post contacted him prior to or after publishing the article headlined “‘This feels great‘.”

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.

Avalon is definitely upscale; I live only a few miles away, and it is not one of my regular destinations. To put this place in perspective, the Tesla store is directly across the street from the glass and steel Apple store. When last checked, both remain closed (though I can’t confirm it, the Tesla store may see interested patrons by appointment).

But to read the Post piece from May 17, one would be forgiven to picture throngs of social climbers and devil-may-care Platinum Card shoppers strolling the boulevards, sans mask and shoulder to shoulder, gathering in its carefully manicured terrazzas for a demi tasse and a Sfogliatelle.

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.

Let me comment on this, because I neither asked nor expected Gilvin to wade into this racial chumming. Alpharetta has 63,929 residents, and 24% of them are foreign-born. This is nearly double the U.S. average, and more than double the number for Fulton County as a whole. The state average for Georgia is 10%.

Alpharetta is about 58% white, 17% Asian, and about 12% black. Certainly the white percentage is higher than Fulton County, which spans over 90 miles north to south, including the city of Atlanta, but it’s hardly some rich, white enclave full of millionaire estates. (Those places do exist but they are in smaller, more remote communities north of Alpharetta, and there are plenty of minorities, as rappers, professional sports stars and actors are over-represented.)

When I visit Avalon, I see more Indians, Chinese, and Koreans than the average shopping destination, and I also see quite a few black people. Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen, who won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Alabama’s Roy Moore, clearly phoned in her May 17 missive.

“I was disappointed,” Gilvin said. “Clearly, it was not an objective article because it didn’t mention any of the hundreds of precautions that the management team at Avalon put in place to protect people.”

“It was clearly meant to reinforce a previous context,” he added.

Whatever McCrummen was trying to say, Gilvin said the article told him more about what she believes as a person, not “an objective reporter, than it did anything about Alpharetta.”

The discrepancy between the first video and the May 17 article are so stark as to paint a picture of two Georgias, and to reinforce the false narrative that when Gov. Brian Kemp ordered that certain businesses could open, including nail salons, tattoo parlors, massage therapists, bowling alleys and some restaurants, they would all rush to open, creating what MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted a “Petri dish for a pandemic’s spread.”

The narrative is false because the governor’s shutdown orders didn’t actually shut down Alpharetta, or Avalon. The businesses and people did. Alpharetta’s daytime population doubles its residents, due to the number of office workers and businesses operating in the city. Almost overnight, the parking lots of these businesses emptied, the mayor told me. This all occurred before the state shut down.

Gilvin found out about the shutdowns when the rest of us did–when Fulton County schools reported on March 9 that a teacher had tested positive, and schools were to be closed. For the next three weeks, things were “challenging,” the mayor said.

“There wasn’t true leadership from the federal government,” Gilvin said. “There wasn’t a blueprint for local governments.”

“At a local level, we were pretty much scrambling to try to understand what we needed to do, how we could impose emergency powers to help us deal with this,” he said. “The restaurants were already shutting down, because people weren’t going to the restaurants.”

“Avalon closed down. North Point Mall closed down. All of them closed long before we imposed restrictions.”

“God bless [Governor Kemp], because he caught hell,” Gilvin said about the governor’s imposition of statewide restrictions. “At least there was a set of rules that were established statewide.” That took the pressure off local governments.

When it was time for opening up, Gilvin said he found out the governor was lifting restrictions during the press conference when it was announced. He had attended a few conference calls with the governor and his staff, but with over 500 mayors and 159 Georgia counties, “there wasn’t a lot of opportunity” to ask questions.

Did Kemp open Georgia too early? “In hindsight, we’ll know,” Gilvin said. “He’s got better access to information than I do.” Gilvin said he’s giving Kemp the benefit of the doubt, and in any case, as a mayor, he lacks the authority to countermand the governor’s order. “He took tremendous criticism.”

I asked Gilvin if he thought Avalon opened too early. “Avalon shut down, and they did that because they were making good decisions to protect this community.”

“So, why would I have any reason, without evidence, to criticize them, for once again, trying to safely open up and allow those workers to get back to work and business owners to perhaps save their businesses?”

“One of the biggest frustrations,” Gilvin said about the Post article, “was that I knew Avalon spent weeks and weeks, if not months, trying to come up with a way to safely open up when the laws allowed.”

“For an article to just completely dismiss all of the cautions and all the precautions that Avalon had in place,” he continued, “is just a shame.”

To put some numbers with the context of this “tale of two Georgias,” on May 13, Alpharetta had reported 86 positive COVID-19 cases. On May 15, the number was unchanged, which represents 133 per 100,000 (compared to Atlanta’s 381.9 per 100,000). On May 18, the count in Alpharetta notched up 9.3% to 94, although testing has also increased. On May 20 (the latest day for which data is available from Fulton County Board of Health as of this writing), the case count has remained unchanged.

Source: Fulton County Board of Health

Statewide, Georgia COVID-19 cases continue to plummet as the state opens up.

Source: Fulton County Board of Health

So much for being a “Petri dish.” Georgia has flattened the curve, and has turned the corner.

“I have faith in the people of Alpharetta and this state,” said Gilvin, when I asked him how we would fare in the next few months. “There’s always going to be knuckleheads,” he cautioned. “Optimistic, but I’m cautious.”

Why would we need to go back to lockdown? “When this all started, nobody told us that we had to stop the spread of this disease one hundred percent, because that’s impossible.”

“We, as residents–we as people–we were told that if we didn’t stop–if we didn’t do social distancing and washing our hands, that thousands and thousands of people were going to die. We would…end up overwhelming the health care system. And we took drastic measures.”

“As far as we can tell…it worked,” Gilvin said. “We have to trust people.”

Avalon is, like the rest of Georgia, slowly and cautiously opening up. We haven’t seen a huge spike in cases because of it. People are taking measures they believe appropriate to the risk. And people, generally, are doing a good job. That’s the real tale of Avalon.

But that’s not the tale of Georgia a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter wanted to tell.

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