This is the third story in a three-part series. Read the rest of the series here.
On Nov. 9 — a week before Whitfield County topped the state of Georgia in new COVID-19 cases per capita — Dr. Pablo Perez presented his case for a face mask mandate to the county commission.
Perez, an internal medicine physician in Dalton, Georgia, who has advocated for stronger steps to curb the pandemic, said he felt a moral obligation to express his concern.
At the time, Whitfield County Commissioner Roger Crossen was sick with COVID-19 and fighting for his life in the intensive care unit. Commissioner Barry Robbins also was COVID-19 positive and isolating at home without symptoms.
"I was very optimistic and presenting just simple research about how much we can decrease the transmission if there is a mandate," Perez said.
He wound up leaving that meeting stunned and heartbroken.
Not only did the commission not consider a face mask mandate, the group voted against even recommending that people wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"It's like they just closed their eyes and they said, 'Well, we'll just do what we're doing. We're doing fine,' and we're not doing fine," Perez said. "For me, it's difficult to understand. Do they not care about our community, or are they very indifferent to the pain and suffering of others?"
In all likelihood, the coronavirus pandemic will cement its place in history as one of the 21st century's worst crises. But another crisis still hangs heavy on the minds of Whitfield County residents.
Home to a $10 billion textile manufacturing industry, Dalton is known as the "Carpet Capital of the World." Whitfield County, home of about 105,000 people, enjoyed a long period of economic success as carpet became a popular feature in suburban homes after World War II. Then came the Great Recession of 2008.
"Dalton was hit harder than just about any community in the country," said Rob Bradham, president and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce. "Our major products — floor covering products — are very tied to the home-building market, and that recession was caused in large measure by a housing crisis. Nobody was buying our products, because nobody was building houses."
When Bradham became head of the chamber in 2015, he went on what he calls "a listening tour" of meetings to learn what business owners and citizens envisioned for the city.
"I heard over and over again in these meetings that Dalton was great pre-recession, our economy was booming, then we had this devastating recession," he said. "And then, 'Now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, my business is coming back, things are looking better. What's the future? Who's got a plan?'"
In 2018, the chamber began leading a new strategic initiative for the community called "Believe Greater Dalton" focused on downtown and economic revitalization. Features including building new parks, housing and encouraging entrepreneurship.
"Downtown is night and day different today than it was five years ago," Bradham said. "And that's not just our efforts. It's the efforts of a lot of different partners that have been working together to make that happen."
Local restaurateur T.J. Kaikobad moved to Dalton 30 years ago and has watched the city transform from streets lined with empty and dilapidated storefronts to a bustling downtown filled with high-end apartments, new restaurants and a brewery.
"Today, you're going to be hard pressed to find a spot downtown. It's literally exploded," Kaikobad said.
But just as the city was on the rise, a novel coronavirus arrived and began threatening Dalton's progress.
In early July, Gov. Brian Kemp visited Dalton as part of a statewide tour urging people to wear masks in public and reminding them the coronavirus pandemic was far from over.
By late fall, the Georgia Department of Public Health released data showing per capita COVID-19 cases in Whitfield County were the worst in the state.
"That's not a record you want to set," Bradham said, noting that the chamber has worked hard to promote face masks, social distancing and hand hygiene, but there's only so much they can do.
"I'll just be frank. We're a fairly conservative community, and we've got a lot of people here that just don't like to be told they have to wear a mask," he said.
Although COVID-19 has brought challenges — like the departures of three key staff members during the initial shutdown — Kaikobad is confident that Dalton and his restaurants will weather the pandemic. So much so that he's planning to open two new restaurants in the coming year.
"I have much stronger faith in Georgia and its administration than if I was in California — not a doubt in my mind that those guys are going overboard," Kaikobad said.
The latest fall surge is different from the summer, when cases, hospitalizations and deaths were largely concentrated in the Hispanic community.
In July, most of Whitfield County's COVID-19 clusters were concentrated in textile factories. As of November, the trend of new clusters had shifted to schools, according to data from the North Georgia Health District obtained through an open records request.
Whitfield County Schools' fall reopening plan was the most cautious of any district in Northwest Georgia in that high schoolers started by attending in-person two days a week and learning online the rest of the week.
Face masks have never been required on campuses, although Dalton Public Schools do require masks.
Sherry Gregory, North Georgia Health District infectious disease director, said via email that COVID fatigue, quarantine compliance, incorrect and lack of mask wearing and not social distancing have played a major role in increased transmission.
"It can be much more difficult to require children and teenagers to adopt these mitigation strategies, especially when the adults are not providing an example of proper mitigation," Gregory said.
Whitfield County Commission Chair Lynn Laughter has long been an advocate for implementing a mask mandate in Whitfield County but has struggled to get her fellow commissioners on board. November's meeting marked the third time the group had rejected face coverings in a public meeting since the pandemic began.
Eight days later, Crossen died of the virus.
Chris Crossen, Roger's son and Dalton's assistant police chief, said his dad actually started to get better when he was in intensive care.
"He got pneumonia and as they increased his oxygen levels he started to really improve, his lungs started to respond," Chris Crossen said. "But his heart became an issue. It all just became more than he could overcome."
Crossen was in good shape. He was a basketball and football official for 30 years and didn't have any preexisting conditions that would have made him more susceptible to the virus.
Several fellow commissioners told the Times Free Press that there's nothing more they can do to slow the pandemic.
"It's just a bad virus," Whitfield County Commissioner Greg Jones said.
Commissioner Harold Brooker echoed Jones' sentiments.
"I don't see how the federal government can slow this down. Hopefully, the vaccine works and that will slow the spread, and until then I pray it gets over with," Brooker said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Zachary Taylor, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health district that encompasses Whitfield County, said the reasons why the county's outbreak is spreading uncontrolled are clear.
"People continue to gather in small groups outside their immediate households and do not wear masks or practice social distancing," Taylor said via email, adding that the department has conducted "extensive media campaigns" in an attempt to inform residents about the steps they need to take to prevent spreading the virus — isolate infected people, quarantine their contacts, wear a mask in public, don't gather with non-household members, practice social distancing and continue good hand hygiene.
"Until we have a sufficient supply of vaccine and are able to vaccinate a significant majority of the population, these are the only things that can be done," Taylor said. "Public health is doing everything we can do, however, the spread will not be contained until the community takes the steps outlined above."
County Commissioner Jones, a real estate agent and poultry farm owner who studied auto body mechanics at Dalton College in the 1980s, said he rarely wears a face mask because he doesn't think they are "that effective."
"I don't think they stop the virus," he said. "They may stop, you know, if you're sneezing, stop you from blowing saliva out. I may be totally wrong, but those are my thoughts."
Still, in the weeks since Crossen's death, the county commission has changed its tune slightly.
On Dec. 14, commissioners passed a resolution recommending people wear masks. Brooker was the one who made the motion, and this time around, both Jones and Robbins voted yes.
Jones said later a driving factor in his decision was his worries the local hospitals would fill up and not be able to serve the community. The commission also voted to extend its own mandate that visitors must wear masks when in county-owned buildings.
Laughter's time as commission chair will come to an end in January as the county deals with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the state. Jevin Jensen, who will be the new commission chair, hesitated on whether he would be in favor of a mask mandate.
"I want to recommend it, I want everyone to follow all of the guidelines, and I try to lead by example," he said. "That's all I can do as far as that's concerned."
Jensen and Brooker pointed to the heavy manufacturing industry in Dalton as a driving force behind community spread, although Bradham said that's a misconception.
"That's just not the case. For the most part, our industry, if you were to walk into a carpet mill or floor covering manufacturing facility, it's naturally socially distanced. A tufting machine only requires one operator, and they're 10 feet apart," Bradham said. "We're seeing community spread. So it's basically friends and family getting together in settings where they shouldn't, outside of the work environment."
Jensen is looking forward to the vaccine getting to Whitfield County by January for health care workers and the most vulnerable. Then, he said, come February, March and April, the county needs to have "almost like a military operation" for distributing vaccines to as many people as possible.
Dalton's mayor, David Pennington, said the only way a mask mandate would be effective is if Kemp issued a mandate that businesses couldn't opt out of. As it's written now, businesses have the choice to not require people to wear masks in their stores.
Pennington also believed policing a mask mandate in the city limits would be a logistical nightmare.
"I'm glad the vaccine is being rolled out," he said. "That's the only thing that's going to stop it."
Pennington mentioned the $50,000 the city agreed to give the DEO Clinic in Dalton for an increase in testing accessibility and COVID-19 education outreach as ways the city has helped try to slow the spread of the virus. Beyond that, he said, there isn't much more the city could have done.
"A lot of this is personal responsibility," Pennington said.
When Chris Crossen looks back on the last nine months, he has a hard time putting into words why Whitfield County has had such a hard time containing the virus.
"I think it really comes down to being an adult," he said. "If a business posts on their door asking you to wear masks, they have the right to do that and you should respect that. If people put their politics aside, I think we'd be a lot better off."
As for Dr. Perez, the reasons behind Whitfield County's COVID-19 crisis are clear.
"Things are getting worse because of the lack of communication among the local authorities and the lack of empathy with the suffering of others," he said. "I don't see the solidarity that should be in these difficult times. I don't see much compassion from people to want to take a pause and do something for our community."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.
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