At a rally of Tennessee and Georgia supporters of President Donald Trump on Sunday, business owners and supporters prioritized political fervor and fellowship against business implications and COVID-19 safety.
Around 150 vehicles — motorcycles, trucks, cars and a firetruck — lined in rows, sporting Trump flags and decals, Thin Blue Line police flags, American flags, Gadsden flags, Confederate flags and similar decor in wait for the Trump Train parade which took to the highway late Sunday.
Participants drove around the North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee region in support of Trump. At the start, vehicles blared their horns, played patriotic music over loudspeakers and chanted "four more years," and similar sayings as they drove by with people hanging out of sunroofs, windows and even open van doors, waving flags and holding signs.
The parade, one of the largest such Trump Trains in the area, came at the end of the nearly five-hour Chattanooga Trump Train and Back the Blue Rally in the parking lot of Ringgold Georgia's Gateway Business Mall. A couple hundred Trump supporters rallied there Sunday to celebrate the president and hope for his re-election, just two weeks before the November election.
"We're just all Trump supporters from all walks of life and we love this country and support American values," said Alexis Tranthom, a Chattanooga woman selling Trump merchandise at Sunday's event. "It's good for us all to come out and support the president, and it all started from a Back the Blue event too, and we're even going to donate some of the proceeds to the officer who was shot last week," she added, referencing East Ridge Corporal Terry Prescott, who was shot at a nearby pharmacy last weekend.
As a grassroots gathering organized by individuals like Chattanooga's Lauren LaFevor, Tranthom said the event had representation of different local conservative groups.
"There are some clubs and things here," she said. "It's one of the biggest [events] around and it's been steady like this pretty much all day."
As she celebrated the size of the event — which included musical acts, group prayers, food trucks and merchandise tents — she says the gathering of easily 200 (almost all unmasked) people was safe, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's outside, so it feels safer, it gives us that advantage," Tranthom added, when asked about the size of the crowd during COVID-19. "I think the people who are at risk are staying home or wearing a mask and being careful and the rest of us, you know, aren't that worried about it.
"I'm a healthy person and I feel like if I got it, it wouldn't be that bad."
Kathleen Combs, the owner of the mall, said that while she appreciates the organizers and personally supports the Republican party, the event was not what she was originally pitched.
"Initially, it was presented to me as Back the Blue, which I absolutely do. I was even trying to work with the chamber before COVID to do a first responders event, because you know, I definitely don't like the way first responders are treated," she explained. "I was absolutely for it, but I, unfortunately, kind of didn't ask a lot of questions."
Then, when the event and related group continued to grow on Facebook, Combs became nervous about the safety of participants and the impact on her business.
"As for COVID, I know this is against the ban," she said, apparently referencing Gov. Brian Kemp's ban on gatherings of over 50 people who are spread less than 6 feet apart.
"They're not social distancing," she said of the attendees and vendors, noting that she didn't currently have her own mask on. "I don't have an answer for you on thatbut I totally do not discount COVID."
"As a business, yeah, of course it is concerning. I mean, it's hard because personally I love this. But as a business, you try to have some neutrality," she explained, admitting that she would probably fare well in conservative Catoosa County. "But at the same time, I would do the same thing if somebody approached me as a [Joe] Biden supporter that wanted to do a pro-police event."
Combs praised LaFevor for her leadership of the event, including her organizers limiting the amount of engine-revving and other "disruptive" behavior, which she feared could hurt business.
But she said her business, which she's been renovating in hopes of drawing more business, is going to take a hit.
"I mean, I was afraid of protests, and I'm worried about alienating people, you know, that's obviously a concern," she added. "I mean, the damage was done but at that point there was nothing I could do.
"No matter what I say or how it's presented now, this building is associated with Trump."
Combs is allowing a second round of the event on the property this week.
"I'm doing it for the deli," she said, referencing a tenant of the property who plans to sell barbecue at next week's event. "I am doing it strictly for him next week because he's been struggling."
Inside, the Gateway Antique Mall — a tenant of the property — had not seen any economic benefit from the day's event.
"A lot of foot traffic, a lot of foot traffic. I mean, covered up in foot traffic," owner Veronia Thompson said, having been interrupted by a woman looking for the restroom, another person in Trump gear looking to buy a beverage and a third making a $1 purchase. "I guess we needed to set up port-a-potties or something outside because that's what the foot traffic has been for."
"Sales are low," she added. "But I went out there and even bought a Trump mask and walked around talking to people, giving out business cards, so hopefully the event will do better for us, just not today."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.