On a typical Thursday, Rachel Algeo wakes up at dawn, drives to Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, and works a 12- to 14-hour shift as a nurse in the COVID-19 ward of the intensive care unit. Wearing a medical gown, two face masks, a hairnet, a face shield, gloves, and shoe covers, she sprints from patient to patient, scrambling to resuscitate each one who codes. Sometimes she manages to save them; more often, she doesn't. When she finally gets home at around 9 p.m., she has to choose between going straight to bed or sacrificing an hour of sleep to make dinner. She only has about five hours until she'll have to get up and do it all again.
But May 7 wasn't a typical Thursday. Instead of throwing on her scrubs and heading to work, Algeo picked out a nice blouse, put on a pair of jeans, and went to the movies.
Every movie theater in Atlanta is still closed; although Georgia Governor Brian Kemp legally allowed them to reopen weeks ago, none have taken him up on the offer. In the meantime, Christopher Escobar—who owns Atlanta's only independent theater, the Plaza—is hosting free, private screenings for healthcare workers treating patients with COVID-19. Once a day, four days a week, Escobar invites a single frontline worker and their family to watch any movie they'd like in his 485-seat auditorium, all by themselves. They tell him what they want to see, what kind of candy they like, and what they want to drink. When they get to the theater, their concessions are waiting for them at their seats, the best in the house.
Before the pandemic, Escobar had only offered these VIP screenings to high-paying clients. Over the years, he's hosted them for Tom Hanks, Janelle Monáe, and Clint Eastwood.
"We normally have people in here who play heroes on screen. These are heroes in real life," Escobar told VICE. "This is our opportunity to treat them like the VIPs that they are."
Algeo was the first frontline worker to attend a screening at the Plaza. When she got there with her boyfriend, Wesley Richards, Escobar met them at the door wearing a mask. He unhooked a red velvet rope from its stanchion, pulled it aside, and waved them in. He gave them a brief tour, pointing out what was still intact from 1939, when the Plaza first opened, and what had been modified. Then he led them to the theater itself. He'd arranged the letters on a miniature marquee above the door just for them: "WELCOME RACHEL AND WES." Halfway down the aisle, he'd placed popcorn, candy, and glass bottles of Coke on top of a cart draped with a gold tablecloth.
"We felt like celebrities," Algeo said. "I thought that it was going to be like, 'Here's a bucket of popcorn, here's a box of candy, and here's your two fountain sodas—off you go.' So to walk in there, and they had the velvet stanchions, and the linen-covered cart, and our popcorn set up, and this whole array of candy, and then to literally be able to pick wherever we wanted to sit—it was surreal."
Once Escobar left the theater, the lights went down, the curtain rose, and tranquil shots of sloths, lions, and lizards—the opening scenes of The Life of Pi—flashed onto the screen. Algeo and Richards had spent a week debating what movie they wanted to watch. Now they were alone with it.
"It was such a treat to be able to escape, and kind of leave everything outside the Plaza—all your worries and anxieties and concerns," Algeo said. "You can pick them up when you leave, but for the three hours that we were there, it was really awesome just to be able to put life on pause."
Escobar plans to host screenings for frontline healthcare workers and their families until his theater reopens. But even over the span of months, he can only treat so many people to the experience. There are more than 300 medical personnel working in Grady's COVID-19 ward alone, he said, and hundreds more at other Atlanta hospitals.
As a way of donating to as many of them as he can, he's giving away what he calls "movie night care packages." He and his staff are delivering fresh popcorn, candy, bottled soda, and four vouchers for any future showing at the Plaza to frontline workers, including essential employees like grocery store clerks and delivery drivers. He's paying for the first few hundred care packages himself. After that, anyone will be able to underwrite them through the Plaza's website for $20 each.
"The times we're faced with right now, a lot of people are suffering, a lot of people are hurting. And then there's also a lot of people who are really shouldering the burden of us being able to get through all of it," Escobar said. "I think it is upon the rest of us to do anything and everything we can with our time, our money, and our resources to support those folks, and to thank them."
While free screenings and care packages aren't prohibitively expensive, the Plaza—like every independently owned movie theater in the U.S.—is hurting financially. Escobar has been able to bring in some revenue through merchandise and concession sales, gift cards, and tickets to a makeshift drive-in he recently launched behind the theater. But what's really kept the Plaza alive these past few months, he said, are donations. People have contributed more than $30,000 to the theater—the oldest in Atlanta, and a well-loved landmark—since it closed in March.
"We feel like we've gotta pay it forward to the folks who are even more deserving of that help," Escobar said. "There are people dealing with far harder, scarier things than we are. You almost feel like you're not worthy of this help, of these dollars. So how can we give it to the people who are the most worthy?"
On the weekend before she went to the Plaza, Algeo worked a particularly grueling shift at the hospital. A few hours in, her colleague's patient coded; moments later, her own did. All around her, organs failed, blood pressure plummeted, and half-conscious patients struggled to pull out their breathing tubes. Meanwhile, Algeo said, the ward kept getting "admission after admission after admission."
"It was just chaotic," she said. "The entire 12 hours was running."
Five days later, she and her boyfriend went to their VIP screening. She walked in exhausted; but by the time she walked out, Algeo said, she felt rejuvenated.
"I felt like, 'OK, I'm ready to go back to work now. I can take another day.' It was more than, 'These three guys at the Plaza Theatre respect what I do.' I really felt like Atlanta had my back," she said. "That's probably the most I've felt supported by anyone who's not in healthcare in my career. That gesture meant more to me than any nurses' week celebration, or any free ice cream treat at the cafeteria. I knew that they cared about me. And that made me feel empowered. It made me hopeful."
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