Unless there is a drastic change of heart from a majority of the commissioners, there will be no countywide mask mandate in Whitfield County.
More than 40 people showed up to Monday night's work session, most of them wearing red as a statement to show their support for having no mask mandate.
Billy Joe Wilson Jr. was one of the outspoken Whitfield County residents who was against a mask mandate. Wilson said issuing such a mandate is something a tyrannical government would do.
"There's a lot of things I disagree with," Wilson said. "There are a lot of ideas that I think are good. But I don't believe in forcing my opinion or my righteousness as a law on other people."
Whitfield County Chair Lynn Laughter wanted to discuss the possibility of a mask mandate with the commission in a public setting. The commission does not vote during work sessions. The four other commissioners — Barry Robbins, Harold Brooker, Greg Jones and Roger Crossen — all said Monday they would not support a mask mandate. By a show of hands, only two people at Monday's crowded meeting said they would support such a mandate.
After months of pushback from some cities and towns in the state, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Aug. 15 allowing many Georgia cities and counties to mandate face coverings in public to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Before his latest executive order, dozens of municipalities had already issued mask mandates and Kemp went to court to block them.
Kemp's newest order still tells the state that masks are "strongly encouraged" but doesn't require them. The order also gives cities and counties the ability to impose a mandate called "Local Option Face Covering Requirements."
The order allows municipalities like the city of Dalton and Whitfield County to mandate masks in government buildings, which both had already passed. However, the order also allows municipalities to broaden those rules to communities who meet a coronavirus "threshold." The threshold requires that a county or city have at least 100 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population in the past 14 days.
Nearly every county falls under that threshold, including the six counties in the Times Free Press' coverage area of Northwest Georgia. Chattooga County leads the pack with 594 new cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks. Whitfield County is at 257.
The communities would also have to follow certain restrictions. One restriction is that a mask mandate can only be enforced on private property if the owner or occupant consents to the mandate.
Penalties for the mandate would be limited to $50 and no jail time could be issued. Those who claim a religious or health reason for not wearing a mask would not be required to wear one.
Laughter said after Kemp's latest order was passed, she felt it was necessary for the commission to talk about the possibility of issuing a broader mandate in a public setting.
"I just think we need to have an open discussion about it," Laughter told the Times Free Press before the meeting. "From what I'm hearing after calling and talking with the other commissioners, I think the other four will be against something like this. And that's fine. Whitfield County has always been good about talking things out, and I wanted to do this in a public setting."
Laughter said after the commission agreed to require masks in government buildings, several people reached out to her to thank her and the rest of the commission as cases were drastically increasing on a daily basis.
On Monday, as the seven-day average for new cases continued to fall, she said she had received several calls from people in the community pushing back against a countywide mandate. People have said it infringes on their constitutional rights, they worry that masks facilitate human trafficking when children commonly wear them in public and they point to the low death rate as a reason not to issue a mask mandate.
Laughter said there is no evidence that substantiates the human trafficking claim, a mask mandate would be constitutional because it would "provide for general welfare" of the community and although the death rate is low, "I think one more death is one too many."
COVID-19 in Whitfield County
Aug. 1 was arguably the worst day of the coronavirus pandemic in Whitfield County, Georgia.
Hospitalizations had risen from 50 on June 30 to over 120 by the end of July. On Aug. 1, the moving seven-day average was the highest it had ever been. The county was averaging more than 77 new cases a day.
The upswing in cases started in early June, but as Dr. Zachary Taylor — director of the North Georgia Health District — pointed out at the time, deaths and hospitalizations remained low. He also said that the community should expect deaths and hospitalizations could soon be on the rise in Whitfield County following a two-week surge in confirmed cases.
Taylor's worst fears came true between Aug. 10 and Aug. 24 when 17 people died of the coronavirus in Whitfield County.
There was a four-day period starting Aug. 15 during which two deaths were reported every day.
What happens next
If the county were to issue a mask mandate, it would not have any power inside the city limits of Dalton. It would only be for the unincorporated parts of Whitfield County.
At the Dalton City Council meeting last week, the council voted 4-0 to table the issue of a citywide mask mandate. Council members and Mayor David Pennington said that because of all the exceptions written in Kemp's order, a new order wouldn't be feasible in the first place.
The council did double down on its ordinance to require masks in city buildings back in July after Kemp's new order.
Dr. Taylor spoke at Monday's meeting and said although the rate at which cases are increasing in the county has fallen, there are still dozens of new cases every day and that the fight is not over. Taylor also tried to dispel some misinformation about how masks are not scientifically proven to help.
When he cited studies that proved that masks work to slow the spread, a couple of people in the audience heckled him, pushed back on his guidance and one person asked if one of the studies had been "retracted."
No, Taylor said, it had not.
The county commission will meet again next week, but an agenda item for a mask mandate is unlikely to appear.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.