With precautions in place by the City of Dahlonega to combat the spread of COVID-19 including cancellations of the annual parade and fireworks show, Saturday’s Fourth of July Celebration lacked the luster, and crowd, Dahlonega is used to for the holiday.
“We’ve had much more entertaining Fourth of July’s,” Mayor Sam Norton said of the weekend celebration, “and we will again. But we did the best we could in light of the current situation.”
Yet while the city made the calls it deemed necessary to keep the public safe and to prevent the spread of coronavirus as much as possible while still having a town-wide celebration, participants seemed to be relying solely on the social distancing made possible by a thinned-out crowd, as the majority of people downtown did not wear a mask or face-covering as suggested by health officials.
Since the question of mask management has become controversial lately, The Nugget asked downtown attendees to share their thoughts on the matter.
Kathy and Steve Alvey found themselves in the center of town throughout the day, manning a tent by the Gold Museum and coming into contact with a sizable portion of the crowd as they passed out information and took in donations.
“Some had masks, some not,” Kathy said, “more not. People seem to be keeping their own distance.”
Yet the Alvey’s were never too concerned.
“We never felt threatened because most people have kept their distance,” Steve said.
And while the Alvey’s had their own masks, Kathy said they only wore them when it felt necessary.
“We have them in our pockets in case there’s a need for it,” she said.
That appeared to be the standard as those that did have masked seemed to use them mostly indoors and when social distancing was compromised. This was the case for Blakely Viele, who decided to celebrate the holiday in the mountains instead of Atlanta where he’s from.
“We wear them when we walk into restaurants, but when we sit down at the table we don’t,” Viele said. “When all these sidewalks are so crowded, we’ll wear them.”
An area that was often crowded was Hancock Park, where a shaved ice truck allowed several visitors to cool off. David Steines, who served up icy treats to all ages throughout the day said he was not expecting to see many mask-wearers taking part in the festivities.
“I was actually really surprised today by how many people were wearing masks,” Steines said. “I figured there’d be a lot less people wearing masks, but I noticed it was typically a lot of people that were older that were wearing them.”
As for his own mask, Steines didn’t feel the need for a face covering.
“It’s never truly bothered me,” he said. “It was a little bit scary when a lot of this stuff was coming out originally, but per all the research and stuff like that where people talk about the only risk is if you’re not wearing one, you’re at risk to spread it, and it’s not necessarily a prevention from getting it, in my ideology as that of a young 22-year-old man, [I’m] well into fitness and eating healthy, so I’m not super worried about getting it.”
Steines added that he actually wouldn’t mind contracting the disease.
“The goal is to, obviously, get it, contract it, fight it, build antibodies,” he said. “And so I haven’t really felt that I’ve needed [a mask] for my own personal health but if somebody chooses to wear one, that’s their personal decision, and I support that.”
SEEKING ‘MIDDLE GROUND’
While the response efforts to COVID-19 have become a polarized debate between two extremes, Norton said the city was seeking a responsible “middle ground.”
“I think some people were disappointed that we didn’t do more than we did, and some people were perplexed why we were doing anything at that time,” Norton said regarding the city’s Fourth of July celebration. “So we just tried to find some middle ground. I did have some conversations with some people that were heated, that we weren’t doing fireworks and weren’t doing parades and then I had some phone calls from people that were upset that we were actually doing anything. I think the public needs to understand that there are extremists on both side of this issue and there are no good answers right now, pandemics didn’t really come with an instruction guide.”
In regards to masks, Norton also fielded complaints about businesses that require masks upon entry while others have little to no restrictions.
“I told the people that it’s a private business, they will live or die by their own business savvy,” he said. “... I also got complaints that some of the businesses were not practicing social distancing and were putting everyone at risk for an essential service. In other words the people had to eat, but the restaurant wasn’t practicing safe guidelines. So I’m like that's a tough one too. Some people doing too much, some people doing too little and it’s got everything to do with that individual’s perception. It’s hard to find middle ground to stand on right now, everything is so polarized.”
Norton feels uniformity across town in the form of a city ordinance could alleviate some of the mask mayhem, but says their hands are still tied by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.
“The city council wants to get in the fight, and they have a strong opinion, but the governor’s mandate preempts local governing bodies from making any restrictions more restrictive or less restrictive,” Norton said. “So the state has basically taken us out of the fight, we can’t be more or less restrictive than what the governor has mandated.”
As of last week, Kemp is leaving the matter of masks up to individuals, while suggesting that everyone wear one.
“We shouldn’t need a mask mandate for people to do the right thing,” Kemp said at a news conference last Wednesday as reported by Capitol Beat
The city of Savannah decided to take matters into its own hands, becoming the first city in Georgia to require people wear masks when out in public last week, however Kemp has the power to overturn that ruling under his emergency executive powers, if he decides.
At the moment, Norton and the city council sit in the ready position, waiting for permission to make their own decisions out from under the governor’s rule.
“We would definitely have some deliberation over it, and we would seek input from the local community and we would exercise home rule, wherein we would adopt our policies to fit our particular needs, not the generic needs of everybody in the state,” Norton said.
According to the executive order signed by Kemp, if not renewed, the state of emergency would expire at 12 a.m. on August 11, ending the governor’s preemptive mandates and allowing local governments to make their own restrictions.
Until then, Norton says he’d like to see Kemp make masks mandatory for the entire state of Georgia.
“If he’s going to make blanket policies for the whole state, I think he needs to consider the different needs,” Norton said. “...just a few people wearing a mask doesn’t do it. If he’s going to make it a state policy, he needs to make it a state policy.”