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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / From left, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Gov. Brian Kemp and state senator Jeff Mullis talk before the press conference. Gov. Brian Kemp was in Dalton Thursday morning, along with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams as part of his statewide "Wear a Mask" tour. He's going around to different COVID hot spots and urging people to wear masks.

This story has been updated to reflect the total number of Whitfield County's COVID-19 cases. The county added over 700 cases in the last three weeks, not 1,200.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was in Dalton on Thursday morning, urging people to wear masks in public and reminding them the coronavirus pandemic is far from over.

Hours later, the state announced it had set a record for the most confirmed coronavirus cases in a single day. In Whitfield County, cases have been increasing by an average of nearly 40 cases a day over the past week.

However, Kemp stood strong behind his reluctance to issue a statewide mandate that would require people to wear masks in public. The governor, along with Georgia's top health official Kathleen Toomey and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, said issuing a mandate to wear face masks would be counterproductive in the fight to slow the spread of the virus, adding that he preferred to leave his trust in the hands of Georgians to make the right decision.

"We don't need a mandate to do the right thing," Kemp said. "Let's just be smart and reasonable. There is, however, no doubt that COVID-19 continues to spread in our state and across the country. It is a clear reminder that we are not out of the woods yet. We cannot get complacent and we cannot get weary."

Adams said the key to slowing the spread is for the public to normalize wearing a mask and for people to think of the positives that it will bring.

"We need to help young people understand they won't be penalized if they don't wear a face covering but understand the benefits they get if they do wear a face covering," Adams said. "You'll be able to go to homecoming, prom; so many people missed graduation. We don't want that to happen to young people again next year."

Toomey said what the state health department is trying to do is create a new social norm where wearing a mask "is not only acceptable, it's expected."

"We recognize that this is not yet acceptable behavior," she said. "We have to make it the way where it's not acceptable to not be wearing a mask."

Kemp said the state hasn't seen evidence the statewide protests caused a recent spike in cases, but what the protests did was give the public the perception that gathering in large groups was OK.

During his visit, Kemp noted positive signs in the fight against COVID-19 such as the low mortality rate and the hundreds of free testing sites that have ramped up in recent weeks. Kemp also said more than 600 of the confirmed cases that came back Wednesday were out-of-state residents. He said most of those were migrant workers, a vulnerable population often living in tight quarters, and the state has been targeting those workers with testing.

However, there was a reason Kemp and the group made the trip to Dalton. It's considered one of the new hot spots in the state with nearly 1,200 cases only three weeks after the county had 500.

Asked about the state's effort to share information and resources with the Hispanic population in Whitfield County, Toomey said the state is taking a very aggressive approach by producing public service announcements, working with farmers to make sure workers can be safely tested and communicating with Latino churches on how to slow the spread.

Pastor Paul Williams at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Dalton said resources from the local and state health departments have been easily accessible and his parish has felt mostly safe since the pandemic started.

"We certainly have had some members of our parish diagnosed with the coronavirus," Williams said. "Most of them tend to be young and tend to recuperate very well. I don't see much fear in the community among young people, but from the very beginning we've stressed and have been very strict about protecting the elderly and those who are vulnerable."

St. Joseph's is one of the largest churches in the region. An average of about 5,000 people would attend church on a regular Sunday. Williams said the church has about 4,000 registered families and 90% of the parish is Hispanic.

Zachary Taylor, health director for the North Georgia Health District, said earlier this week the recent surge in confirmed cases is primarily due to spread in the community. He also said the county is in a middle ground where cases are increasing and hospitalizations and deaths could be around the corner.

"Sometimes those indicators lag behind the number of cases," Taylor said. "So it's certainly something we want to keep an eye on."

As of Thursday afternoon, 10 people had died in Whitfield County from COVID-19 and 56 people had been hospitalized.

"We certainly have cases of people who work in the flooring industry, but we think that most of those people were affected outside of work," Taylor said. "The flooring industry itself is doing a very good job of making sure that their employees are spaced out and wearing a mask. I think that they're doing a good job of trying to prevent spread within the facility."

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Kemp, state health officials on masks

Taylor contributed the increase in cases to people being more comfortable being out in public, gathering in large groups and even gathering indoors to try to stay away from the summer heat.

Even though the Hispanic and Latino community has been hit hard, Taylor sees some improving numbers in the last week.

About a month ago, Hispanic people made up well over 70% of the coronavirus cases in the county. On Tuesday, that number dropped to about 68%. Taylor contributed the high number to the type of work many in the Hispanic community do in Dalton.

"One reason is that the Hispanic workforce probably continued to work while the rest of us were sheltered in place," Taylor said. "They had to work. What they were doing was essential. Once you get a certain number infected in that population, transmission can occur."

Taylor also said the majority of people tested in Whitfield County are Hispanic.

Williams gets the sense that the Hispanic population at his church isn't overly fearful even as cases increase.

"I think part of it is that Hispanics don't tend to watch American media," Williams said. "I think people just use common sense, listen to their employers and their local health officials."

At the news conference, Kemp pushed back a few times on issuing a mask mandate, saying people who don't want one would protest and in turn create more large gatherings.

Kemp cited a coffee shop in Atlanta and a liquor store in DeKalb County that are offering discounts for people who wear masks as perfect examples of how the community can work together to normalize face masks.

"It would be great if tomorrow all those great barbecue restaurants across Georgia give a discount if you come in and pick up your barbecue for the July Fourth weekend if you're wearing a mask," Kemp said. "Maybe we can start a movement."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter@PatrickFilbin.

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