Many Georgians shun masks despite threat from variants

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

Health officials fear that if spread continues, another mutation could beat vaccines

It doesn’t matter if he’s walking into a grocery store, a restaurant, his gym or even a medical office. Joseph Ciotti doesn’t wear a mask.

He knows COVID-19 is out there. He said he contracted it himself at a Fourth of July pool party last year that became a superspreader event but only had a mild case. The experience made the 67-year-old Suwanee retiree all the more convinced that the best way to fend off the virus is by boosting the immune system with vitamin supplements, not by taking a vaccine or wearing a mask.

Rarely, he said, does anyone give him grief. He estimates about half the people he sees out in northern Gwinnett County have ditched masks, too.

“I think more and more people are beginning to realize that it was foolish to begin with,” Ciotti said, “and that only sick people or elderly people need that kind of protection, and the rest of us are just fine.”

Ciotti isn’t wrong about public sentiment. The farther from the core of metro Atlanta you go, the more people you can spot ignoring the drumbeat of advice from health experts about wearing masks and socially distancing.

Stay out after dark, and you can see people packed together on bar stools, sitting back-to-back in crowded restaurants or waiting in line to enter thumping nightclubs.

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Yet even with all the recent good news about the pandemic — vaccinated grandparents reuniting with grandchildren, hospitalization numbers and deaths down, courts and church services resuming, vaccines for everyone coming in May — health officials say masking up and distancing remain as important as ever. To do otherwise, they say, threatens to bring on another surge just as the nation stands on the precipice of containing the deadly disease.

The blow could come from one of the more contagious and potentially more deadly virus variants already in Georgia. The variant first detected in the United Kingdom is widespread, confirmed in more than 200 cases in 31 Georgia counties. Another more transmissible variant, from South Africa, has been detected in three cases in Henry and Douglas counties.

But the punch could also come from another variant strain, even more resistant to vaccines, that can emerge if the coronavirus continues to spread, experts say.

“Every person who is infected is potentially carrying a virus that could start to mutate in those ways,” said Bob Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University. “Those random mutations can come up very easily.

“We’ve been in this for about a year now,” Dr. Bednarczyk said, “and there is a level of fatigue around that. But I would just caution people to say that the more that you are lax about it now, the longer things are going to go on.”

The skeptical view

Last April, when President Trump announced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that all Americans wear a mask in public, he also said, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp never instituted a statewide mask requirement, saying in July that, “Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing.”

But a chunk of Georgia’s population has balked at masks all along, even when hospitals overflowed and bodies stacked up at funeral homes.

The wearing or not wearing of face masks has been a contentious issue throughout the pandemic. Few people enjoy wearing them, but while many see it as a civic duty, others see it as a mark of “sheep.” The medical and scientific community, though, views masks as one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus.With the more transmissible variant strain from United Kingdom becoming entrenched in Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution set out to assess whether people across the state are being vigilant about wearing masks. A reporter made spot visits to Cordele, Dawson, Helen, Lawrenceville, Marietta, Rome and Suwanee.To better explore the underlying social issues at play, the AJC’s social media team put a call out on Facebook and Twitter for residents willing to go on record about their own feelings about masks. More than three dozen Georgians with an array of viewpoints responded.

Now, the anti-mask movement is growing bolder and more vehement. Earlier this month, protesters encouraged children to burn masks on the steps of the Idaho capitol. Mask-burning parties have also been held throughout Texas, one of a half dozen states that recently ended their mask mandates.

In Georgia, a nonprofit called I Do Not Comply has filed a lawsuit against Kemp seeking to overturn the safety standards he did mandate. The group is also putting up billboards in Forsyth County with messages such as, “It’s not about a virus, it’s about control,” and “It’s just a mask. It’s just a vaccine. It’s just our freedoms.”

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Anti-maskers who spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution view themselves not as irresponsible, but as enlightened gnostics who, through alternative media sources or intuition, have determined that medical experts aren’t being honest about the health crisis. The dangers to the general population are overblown, they contend, so that forces within the government and the scientific community can install a new world order.

They often speak of contacts within the medical field who assert hospitals claim more COVID deaths than they actually have, to make more money. They often say COVID is not worse than the flu, or that everyone they know who has caught COVID only had mild cases.

Credit: Johnny Edwards /

Credit: Johnny Edwards /

Sherry Killen, of Sugar Hill in northern Gwinnett, has come around to that view.

Early in the pandemic, she volunteered to sew cloth masks to donate to hospitals. In the latter weeks of March, she stayed home, sewed and worked on puzzles.

As the weeks dragged on, she said she grew suspicious. Fauci in early March of 2020 said the public didn’t need masks. Then he and the CDC said new research and the prospect of asymptomatic spread meant people should wear them. Killen, who calls asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 “BS,” became exasperated. She said she now goes to Kroger, Target, TJ Maxx, Hobby Lobby and the Mall of Georgia — often being the only person in sight without a mask.

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Catching a mild case of COVID herself a few months ago hasn’t changed her mind, especially now that Fauci has said masks could still be needed as late as 2022.

“All I can think of is, they want to keep this level of fear among the population, because when people are fearful they are much more compliant,” Killen, 54, said. “Get a vaccine, you still have to wear a mask. You’ve already had COVID? You still have to wear a mask. OK, well then at what point do we not have to wear a mask?”

Gabrielle Seunagal, a blogger from Alpharetta whose posts include “The Cultish Obsession with Face Masks,” said she believes in social distancing in public and will comply with floor marking keeping customers six feet apart. She views masks as a “personal choice,” though, and her choice is no.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Seunagal questioned why, if masks work, so many have contracted the disease in the U.S.

Another red flag to her: YouTube videos of maskless store customers being lambasted.

“So to me, that doesn’t really seem like it’s about health,” Seunagal said. “Because if someone truly believed that a person without a mask was a threat, then it wouldn’t really make sense to go directly into their faces and harass them and pull out cameras.”

Urban/rural divide

Such thinking frustrates Larry Peck, who lives in Toco Hills in DeKalb County and always wears a three-layered cloth mask in public.

He said he gets irked when he sees contractors and “good ol’ boys” not wearing masks at Home Depot. While he puts mask usage at about 80% in his area, he said he’s noticed that the proportion goes down when he goes farther out from Atlanta, such as northern Cobb County.

“These people are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” Peck said. “My experience is the more rural you get, the more people don’t want to wear masks because they’re Trumpers and they want to believe it’s all a hoax.”

The contrast in mask wearing he describes isn’t hard to spot. Near Marietta, even people walking alone on sidewalks often have them on. A check of the Marietta square last month found roughly 95% of people wearing masks inside shops. At the Walmart near the Big Chicken, you would have to pass dozens of people perusing the aisles before spotting a lone unmasked person.

“We've been in this for about a year now and there is a level of fatigue around that. But I would just caution people to say that the more that you are lax about it now, the longer things are going to go on."

- Dr. Bob Bednarczyk, an assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University

But at the Cordele Walmart in South Georgia earlier this month, about a quarter of the customers didn’t wear masks, and of those with them on, about half wore them below their noses. At the Walmart in Rome, nearly half of the customers went maskless, spanning all ages and demographics. The store had cloth masks for sale in a clearance aisle.

A young couple, Terrence Stocks and Reece Gordon, spent about an hour inside the Rome Walmart without masks, pushing their 1-year-old twin boys in a buggy. Gordon said she’s tired of masks and doesn’t think they work. Stocks said he works long hours at the Kellogg Company plant, where he’s required to wear a mask, and he’s sick of it.

“Honestly, if I catch COVID, that will give me a break,” he said.

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

A general weariness with the pandemic was palpable last weekend in Helen, Georgia’s Bavarian-styled shopping village in the northeast mountains. Throngs of tourists filled the sidewalks — about half in masks, half not.

Diners ate together outside in close proximity, and finding a candy or coffee shop without unmasked employees or shoppers was impossible.

It didn’t seem to faze Trent and Amy McElroy, both schoolteachers from Putnam County who were in Helen celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary. They wore masks inside the stores but took them off outside. The couple said the possibility of the pandemic cranking back up because of variant strains was about the furthest thing from their minds that day.

“You’re always going to worry about that,” Trent McElroy said. “But shoot, you can’t just interrupt your life so much that you forget what normal is.”

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Zachary Taylor, serving as director over two health districts covering most of North Georgia, said he wishes he could say people in his area have complied with safety recommendations, but he can’t.

“If I had a message to give to them to get them to wear masks, I’d be screaming it from the rooftops,” he said. “I know that people are tired of this, and the new cases are down, but we’re a long way from being out of the woods, and there are still a lot of people who are at risk for severe illness, hospitalization and death that haven’t yet been vaccinated. And we need to work together to protect those people.”

When in Rome

Over in Rome, there are people who live as if there’s no pandemic at all. On a recent Friday night, three bars downtown were packed. Rome City Brewing Company had a band performing, with roughly 50 people crowded into the upstairs bar area and not even the bartenders wearing masks.

The pandemic hasn’t skipped Floyd County, though. More than 9% of its population has been infected, and at least 168 residents have died, from ages 25 to 103.

Rome has had a mask mandate since July, but the city has never issued a citation. Public sentiment is so strongly anti-mask that many business owners don’t want to risk alienating their customers, so they can post a sign in their window if they don’t intend to enforce the city’s requirement.

Credit: Johnny Edwards /

Credit: Johnny Edwards /

Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis said she puts a lot of blame on a rally Trump held at Rome’s airport in November, where attendees sat clustered together, with few in masks.

“Unfortunately, the wearing of masks became not about science but about politics,” Davis said. “When the President of the United States comes to your town and holds a superspreader event, his actions and words are more powerful than a local ordinance.”

Rome City Brewing Company is co-owned by Jay Shell, a member of the Floyd County Board of Education. He said the business didn’t survive the pandemic and will be closing at the end of the month, partly because he limited ticket sales to keep crowds down. He expressed frustration with the politics around the mandate.

“It causes friction between myself, as an owner, and potential customers,” Shell said. “At the end of the day, you have to pay the mortgage. You can’t pay the mortgage without customers.”

‘They’re just scared’

The masking controversy plays out another way in South Georgia, where many are still shaken by the COVID deaths last spring when Albany was an early hot spot.

Terrell County, a rural, majority black county north of Albany with fewer than 9,000 people, received some of the fallout. The Dawson Health and Rehabilitation nursing home lost at least 15 patients to the disease, state records show. To date Terrell has had 41 deaths.

“Unfortunately, the wearing of masks became not about science but about politics. When the President of the United States comes to your town and holds a superspreader event, his actions and words are more powerful than a local ordinance."

- Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis

Still, only about half the people in the Piggly Wiggly wore masks early last week. A hardware store in Dawson’s struggling downtown district had a sign in the window that said, “Face mask require,” yet neither the store owner nor an employee had them on. The owner declined to comment.

Just next door to the Terrell County Health Department, where vaccine doses are being administered, the office of the Board of Commissioners doesn’t require employees or visitors to put on masks.

County Manager Davina Driver said she doesn’t believe they work, and she’s not about to force taxpayers to put them on. She said those wearing masks in Dawson have likely been terrified by media coverage.

“We’ve got a lot of elderly people, so they’re scared,” Driver said.

Next door, as Shawn Castillo received her second vaccine dose, she complained aloud about the cavalier attitude toward masks.

About an hour away in Turner County, where she lives, the vitriol against masks is even worse, she said. Last year, she said, an overweight man accosted her in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot, chewing her out in front of her grandchildren for wearing a mask.

“I looked at him and said, ‘I’m in better health than you. I’m protecting you from me,’” Castillo said. “It’s disheartening.”


Georgia voices: Masks vs. no masks

“My contention is the masks are making people more sick. They are trapping bacteria and allergens to their face. They’re making it harder for them to breathe. They’re breathing in through masks, a lot of times, that they’re reusing.” — Eugene Owens, Athens, founder and president of I Do Not Comply

“I don’t understand these people. Just wear the mask, and wear it properly … I’m rational and pragmatic. I don’t understand why people would let their guard down until they’re vaccinated, or we have herd immunity.” — Larry Peck, DeKalb County

“I don’t wear them in general public. I don’t wear them anyplace else, unless I’m forced to. Unless (I’m with) something like an immune-compromised person, then I would do that. But in general, no, it’s just foolishness.” — Joseph Ciotti, Suwanee

“If experts are saying something should be followed, I’m not one to question it. I’m not going to go on the internet and find somebody pretending to be an expert to align with what I want, and then pretend that the experts are lying. It’s just not my character.” — Sean Hamilton, Savannah

“I was really stunned by how quickly compliant people were, because my feeling is this isn’t going to end until people start taking off the masks and throwing them away. Like, ‘OK, I’m done. This is stupid.’ ” — Sherry Killen, Sugar Hill

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news all the time, but I want people to remember you cannot let down your guard at this point. Imagine if we all let down our guard, and we all went and took five families to a beach house in Florida and then come back. That’s what happened last spring break, and we got a huge outbreak from that.” — Dr. Janet Memark, District Health Director for the Cobb & Douglas Public Health District