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Less than a month after a mandate required masks be worn in county buildings — and as COVID-19 cases continue to soar — the Whitfield County Commission repealed it.

The mask mandate was not originally on the panel's Monday night agenda, and the commission wasn't scheduled to discuss it.

However, several attendees at the meeting decided to talk about the mandate in the public comment period before agenda items were discussed.

Commissioner Greg Jones — who has strongly opposed county-wide mask mandates in the past and previously said he doesn't wear masks much — told the Times Free Press Wednesday he had received dozens of calls, texts and emails over the past month from his constituents who opposed the mask rule in county buildings.

Jones said the number of messages against the mandate outnumbered the amount for it by "probably 40 to 1."

He also pointed to Hamilton County, which has a mask mandate that was extended Wednesday through March, as a way to justify the idea masks don't work.

"There are places that are having worse issues than we're having that have mask mandates," Jones said. "Like, Chattanooga, they're having issues, too."

Jones also said because most county employees are already behind acrylic panels while they work, masks are not needed.

Caleb Callahan, a Rocky Face, Georgia, resident, brought up a number of national COVID-19 statistics such as the positivity rate, death rate and how a large number of COVID-19-related deaths are of people over age 85 as a reason masks shouldn't be mandated in government buildings.

"If [the data] were precise, I would be the first person to put a mask on," he said. "If it was conclusive and it was going to actually help, I would be the first person to put a mask on."

Callahan cited information from the website Rational Ground, a site that has several anti-mask articles, one with the title, "After nine months, we still know masks don't work." He referenced a study from the website that said mask mandates did not work in Florida.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study in November from Kansas that showed COVID-19 decreased in 24 counties with mask mandates but continued to increase in 81 counties without mask mandates. Medical and health professionals agree masks help slow the spread of COVID-19 cases, including those in Whitfield County.

After Callahan spoke, he left to applause from the audience.

The four commissioners — Jones, chair Jevin Jensen, Barry Robbins and newly elected Robby Staten — were seated on a small stage. An empty chair was between Jones and Jensen where a fifth commissioner would be seated. Roger Crossen, the former District 3 commissioner, died from COVID-19 in November 2020.

Robbins said at Monday's meeting that people need to be responsible in public and in businesses where different rules may apply, but he does not support a mandate. Staten agreed, saying it was unenforceable.

"You see it violated when you go into Lowe's," Staten said. "They have a sign up, you go in and half the people don't have one."

Jensen has told the Times Free Press in the past he was focused on vaccine distribution and didn't think a countywide mandate would pass.

The three people who spoke against the mandate did not wear masks. Shannon Bearfield, one of five candidates who has filed to fill Crossen's remaining term, spoke about how overwhelmed hospitals are in Dalton, Chattanooga and Atlanta. She alluded to the fact that if fewer people are going to hospitals for COVID-19 treatment, that will free up bed space for people who are dealing with other problems.

Bearfield was one of two speakers to wear a mask. The other, Jackie Killings, wanted the commissioners to hold off on voting until county workers were asked if they would be in favor of people coming in without masks.

Killings pointed out one of the commissioners' responsibilities is to keep the employees safe.

That request fell on deaf ears and the vote passed 3-0 to more applause. Jensen didn't vote, as the chair votes only in the event of a tie.

This was the first commission meeting with Jensen as the chairman. He replaced Lynn Laughter, who tried multiple times to pass a countywide mask mandate and was the only commissioner to be in favor of one throughout the pandemic.

Laughter was also the one to push passing a resolution that simply recommended residents wear masks in public. That resolution was brought up twice before it passed.

COVID-19 cases in Whitfield County continue to surge at numbers that lead the state on a per capita basis.

Raymond Butler, the co-owner of Dalton Distillery, died this week after testing positive for COVID-19. Butler had been hospitalized since Dec. 13, according to his son, Chuck Butler.

The distillery was one of the first small businesses to step up at the beginning of the pandemic by making hand sanitizer and giving it away for free.

Dalton Public Schools reported that from Jan. 5-8, 52 students and 23 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, a new high.

All proceedings at the Municipal Court in Dalton have been canceled for the rest of the month.

The January cancellations are being made as a "precaution to limit the possibility of further spreading the COVID-19 virus," city spokesperson Bruce Frazier said in a news release.

Defendants can have their court date online via Zoom on Jan. 27 if they wish, Frazier said. Those interested in doing so should contact the court clerk's staff at 706-278-1913, ext. 101.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com.

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