Less than a month ago, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to require the use of masks inside county buildings to reduce the spread of COVID-19. On Monday, commissioners voted 3-0 to repeal that requirement.
Chairman Jevin Jensen typically votes only in the event of a tie.
The mask requirement wasn't on the announced agenda for the meeting, but commissioners also voted 3-0 to amend the agenda and place the item on it.
A handful of people spoke about the measure.
Rocky Face resident Caleb Callahan told commissioners the data aren't clear that masks reduce the spread of COVID-19.
"I don't think it's precise enough to make such a ruling as a mask mandate," he said. "If it were precise, I would be the first person to put a mask on."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "Wear a mask to protect yourself and others and stop the spread of COVID-19."
Tunnel Hill resident Billy Wilson said requiring masks in county buildings "deprives me of the ownership of my life, my liberty and property."
Wilson called the requirement "arbitrary."
Shannon Bearfield, who works in a medical lab and is one of the candidates in a March 16 special election to fill the unexpired term of the late Roger Crossen in the District 3 seat on the commission, said she has talked to colleagues in hospitals in Dalton, Atlanta and Chattanooga who tell her they are overwhelmed with patients with COVID-19.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Whitfield County had had 578 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 and 12,060 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health, with 134 deaths and five probable deaths. Its rate of 11,522 cases per 100,000 residents ranked second among Georgia's 159 counties behind Chattahoochee. During the last two weeks, Whitfield County has seen 1,477 new cases.
Bearfield said it is too soon to say what the long-term effects of the disease will be on those who recover, and she noted that every bed filled with a patient with COVID-19 is one less bed for an accident victim or someone who suffers a heart attack or other medical emergency.
Just before commissioners voted, Jackie Killings suggested they wait to poll county workers on the mask requirement, since it directly affects them. But commissioners went ahead with the vote to abolish the requirement.
Commissioner Greg Jones voted to impose the mask requirement in December. Asked why he had changed his mind so soon after that vote, Jones said he had "seen a little more data that masks don't help."
Jones noted that the county provides masks to employees, and that those employees who deal with the public have plexiglass shields between them and the public.
Commissioner Barry Robbins also voted for the mask requirement in December.
"A vaccine has been introduced," he said when asked why he had changed his mind. "Things seem to be going well. I think we are doing the right thing."
The North Georgia Health District reports that the Whitfield County Health Department administered 603 doses of the vaccine Monday.
"I’m not certain of the exact amount of doses they currently have," said Jennifer King, public information officer for the health district. "I do know they have plenty for the appointments they have scheduled over the next several days and are continuously ordering more doses and are receiving COVID-19 vaccine shipments on a regular basis."
Robbins said he believes in personal responsibility, not government requirements.
Commissioner Robby Staten was elected in November and joined the commission this month. He said he believes the mask requirement was "unenforceable."
"This (a cloth gaiter) gets me in the courthouse," he said. "It counts as a mask. But there's no way this protects anybody. It's too thin. I believe in personal responsibility. But I just don't think the county can enforce this."
Bearfield said after the meeting she was disappointed with the vote.
"(Killings) made a very good point," she said. "They should have taken the time to speak to those people who work in those buildings. They are going to be dealing with this day-to-day. I also think it's the board's responsibility to hear from our residents. The people here tonight were a small portion of the county, maybe 30 people, and just a few spoke. Why not wait a month and get more input before voting?"
Board members also voted 3-0 to:
• Authorize Jensen to work with Dalton Mayor David Pennington to look at a possible study on ways the city and county fire departments can work better together, and to spend up to $30,000 on the county's share of that study.
"The reason to proceed with the fire study now is to honor the verbal commitment from last January between the county and city after the service delivery agreement was finally concluded," Jensen said. "This is an opportunity to grow our mutual aid agreement we have today into potential new cost savings areas. This is about cooperation and not a consolidation."
• Adopt the 2021 county strategic objectives: upgrade commissioner meetings to grow citizen involvement; modernize government operations and increase employee engagement; renew the focus on better-paying jobs for citizens and continued community development; lower residential property taxes; and improve city-county teamwork to benefit all Whitfield County residents.
• Direct department heads to work with County Administrator Mark Gibson and the human resources department to develop three goals for their departments for 2021. Those goals are scheduled to be presented to the commissioners at their Feb. 8 meeting.