Campaign rally divides N. Georgia community hit hard by COVID-19

Roger Crossen’s death on Nov. 17 left a gaping hole in Whitfield County, best-known as the world’s carpet capital. He is among at least 117 Whitfield residents who have succumbed to COVID-19. Whitfield also had the fifth-highest infection rate among Georgia’s 159 counties for the 14 days ending Sunday, and days earlier ranked No. 1. That is why some Whitfield residents are worried about President Donald Trump’s plans to headline a rally for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue here Monday, the eve of the U.S. Senate runoffs. Organizers are anticipating as many as 20,000 people for the event, in the heart of Georgia’s conservative base. Republican organizers plan to hold the event outside at the Dalton Municipal Airport, distribute masks and make hand sanitizer available. The airport’s buildings will be closed, so portable toilets will be made available. Outdoor events are generally safer than indoor gatherings. But public health officials say there’s still high risk of spread with so many people in close quarters or if they interact in poorly ventilated areas. Meanwhile, Whitfield and Dalton officials are encouraging people to wear face coverings in. public and have passed measures requiring them in city and county government buildings

One in 10 Whitfield County residents has tested positive for disease

Dalton — Roger Crossen served his country in the U.S. Army with stints in Japan and Italy. He taught high school students and refereed and coached them on football fields and basketball courts. He led Whitfield County’s Recreation Department before winning election to the County Commission.

“It was always about other people and always about what was best for the county,” said his son, Chris Crossen, Dalton’s assistant police chief. “He made it easy to be around him and love him.”

Roger Crossen (Family photos)
Roger Crossen (Family photos)

Credit: Family photos

Credit: Family photos

Roger Crossen’s death on Nov. 17 left a gaping hole in this tightknit North Georgia community best-known as the world’s carpet capital. He is among at least 117 Whitfield residents who have succumbed to COVID-19.

One in 10 Whitfield residents has tested positive for the disease since the start of the pandemic. Whitfield also had the fifth-highest infection rate among Georgia’s 159 counties for the 14 days ending Sunday, and days earlier ranked No. 1.

That is why some Whitfield residents are worried about President Donald Trump’s plans to headline a rally for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue here Monday, the eve of the U.S. Senate runoffs. Organizers are anticipating as many as 20,000 people for the event, in the heart of Georgia’s conservative base.

Republican state Rep. Kasey Carpenter (center, masked), for District 4, stands among supporters as U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks during his campaign event at Cherokee Brewing + Pizza Company in downtown Dalton, Georgia on Dec. 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Republican state Rep. Kasey Carpenter (center, masked), for District 4, stands among supporters as U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks during his campaign event at Cherokee Brewing + Pizza Company in downtown Dalton, Georgia on Dec. 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In the run-up to November’s election, Trump crisscrossed the nation, holding mass rallies — sometimes in spite of objections from local authorities — and in defiance of guidance from his coronavirus task force.

Lynn Laughter, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Whitfield County Commission, admired Roger Crossen, who was also a member of the GOP. She doesn’t plan to attend the rally.

“Wherever [Trump] goes, people are not wearing masks and it is just a hot spot for people getting COVID,” she said. “I wouldn’t go because I wouldn’t feel safe going.”

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Roberta Sikkelee Curtin, an ardent Trump supporter from Dalton, is planning to show up. Wearing a homemade red “Trump” shirt with glittering decorations, Curtin pointed to a pair of Republican-themed facemasks fastened to her belt. She said she would don them if people don’t keep their distance from her.

“We are not that concerned,” the office manager said. “We take precautions.”

Masks politicized

Republican organizers plan to hold the event outside at the Dalton Municipal Airport, distribute masks and make hand sanitizer available, said Andrew Wiersma, the airport’s manager. The airport’s buildings will be closed, so portable toilets will be made available.

Outdoor events are generally safer than indoor gatherings. But public health officials say there’s still high risk of spread with so many people in close quarters or if they interact in poorly ventilated areas.

Roberta Sikkelee Curtin, of Dalton, attends a U.S. Sen. David Perdue campaign event at Cherokee Brewing and Pizza Company in downtown Dalton, Georgia on Dec. 30, 2020.
Roberta Sikkelee Curtin, of Dalton, attends a U.S. Sen. David Perdue campaign event at Cherokee Brewing and Pizza Company in downtown Dalton, Georgia on Dec. 30, 2020.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On Thursday afternoon, hospitals in Georgia’s Region A, which includes Whitfield, reported intensive care beds were overcapacity. At 3 p.m. on Sunday, only one ICU bed was available in the region.

Health officials are following up with patients who test positive for COVID-19, but complete contact tracing is futile, said Dr. Zachary Taylor, a physician and director of the health district that covers Whitfield and five other counties.

“It’s impossible for us to keep up with the number of cases with the staff we have,” he said.

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Gatherings have already contributed to Whitfield’s crisis, Taylor added. After the summer surge, spread was relatively light in the Dalton area until October when cases started to soar. The worst may follow in the wake of holiday celebrations, Taylor said. The autumn and winter surge hit every demographic equally, Taylor said.

“People are getting together in groups outside their household and they’re being exposed in those situations,” Taylor said. “There are large numbers of people who are against wearing a mask in public here.”

Aerial photography shows downtown Dalton on Dec. 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Aerial photography shows downtown Dalton on Dec. 30, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

On Wednesday, dozens of Perdue’s supporters gathered to hear him speak at the Cherokee Brewing and Pizza Company in Dalton. Many did not practice social distancing or wear masks inside the restaurant as Perdue declared: “My job today is I am preparing the ground for the president next Monday night.”

The restaurant’s owner, Republican state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, introduced Perdue. Carpenter, who said he recovered from COVID-19 after testing positive for it this month, disclosed the two restaurants and wedding venue his family owns have lost about $1.2 million in revenue during the pandemic. He predicted his losses would be worse if his businesses were in another state with more stringent operating requirements amid the outbreak. Carpenter is planning to attend Trump’s rally Monday, wearing a mask.

“When the president comes to town … you better show your face,” he said. “I will definitely be there.”

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Meanwhile, Whitfield and Dalton officials are encouraging people to wear face coverings in public and have passed measures requiring them in city and county government buildings. The topic has become politicized, said Laughter, who added she pushed unsuccessfully for a broader mask mandate in Whitfield.

Northwest Georgia recently elected Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress, who has decried a mask mandate by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the U.S. Capitol as “oppressive.”

‘Take it seriously’

A month after his death, former colleagues on the Whitfield commission approved a proclamation naming Dec. 14 “Roger Blake Crossen Day.”

Crossen’s illness began with congestion, followed by labored breathing and a fever. He and his wife of 49 years, Carol, both tested positive for COVID-19. She survived her illness. He was hospitalized for three weeks, developed pneumonia and was placed on a ventilator before his heart gave out. He was 68.

Roger Crossen (Courtesy of family)
Roger Crossen (Courtesy of family)

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

One of his three sons, Chris, fondly remembers how his father always greeted him by hugging and kissing him and telling him he loved him.

“I’m bald like he was and you know my forehead is a big old target,” he said. “Even though I was little taller than him, he would grab me and pull me down and he would kiss me right on the forehead above my eyes every time we left each other. It was something I looked forward to and it is something I do with my son now.”

Chris Crossen has a simple message for people about the disease that killed his father.

“This is not a political issue. It is a medical issue,” he said. “People should really take it seriously and think about their health and think about the health of the people who are going to be around them.”

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