By Dan Pool
Vice President of Sheriff’s Foundation
Last week the Sheriff’s Foundation made official what many had feared since we reported that JeepFest was “unlikely” to happen several weeks ago – Sheriff’s JeepFest will not happen in 2020.
The reaction on JeepFest social media was quick, voluminous, and largely not supportive.
As a member of the board that oversees JeepFest, I wasn’t surprised that many people were upset. You take away someone’s vacation and a very fun event and people aren’t going to pat you on the back.
I am currently the vice-president of the board and have served on the board since the beginning of the event. I serve along with Shelley Cantrell, Mark Maddox, Adam Richards, and Sheriff Donnie Craig.
Much of the backlash online included speculation on why we “really” cancelled the event. Right off the bat, I want to say we made the decision. We weren’t told we couldn’t have it. Our cancellation wasn’t part of any larger conspiracy, not tied to any protests, and there was no “they” directing us on what to do.
The no-go call was made solely because of COVID concerns. JeepFest draws thousands of people from all over Georgia and from other states – Florida tags abound on the backs of Jeeps that week. With free admission to the general public there is no exact count of how many people stop by at some point to watch. We know that 2,340 Jeep owners registered for the event last year.
Pickens’ COVID numbers, thus far, are blessedly low. This good fortune is nothing to take lightly. I got a glimpse of how things could have gone differently a week ago. I went to meet with the newspaper publisher in Cornelia, about an hour and half away, still in north Georgia. I knew something was different there when the publisher, Alan NeSmith, gave me directions of how to park in the rear of his building and come through a side door, so I wouldn’t have to go through their COVID barrier at the front.
When I got in, maintaining a safe distance from Alan, I mentioned that he was taking the COVID stuff pretty seriously. The lobby there had been closed for weeks. Here is the difference, Cornelia in Habersham County has a population of 45,800 and they have had 593 cases of COVID, 82 hospitalizations and 30 deaths compared to Pickens with a population of 33,530 and our 65 cases of COVID, 13 hospitalizations and four deaths. They had one particularly bad period where the virus got into an assisted living home and killed multiple people in a short time period. It’s true a lot of people die every year from the flu, but when you see something sweep through a senior living facility leaving numerous deaths in the wake, it’s different. Keep in mind, this isn’t some metro area, this is a place the other side of Dahlonega and there is no reason it couldn’t have been us.
With JeepFest, we certainly know the impact the event has on businesses with all the extra people here to dine and shop and we recognize the impact our grants have on local non-profits and programs and we know many people really enjoy getting their Jeeps muddy and riding the trails. We aren’t oblivious to any of that.
We weighed all those pros against what if we had the event and two weeks later COVID cases here spiked? We would draw the blame and rightfully so. Would people ever forgive and forget if our event was thought to have created a nasty spike in virus deaths?
Ultimately, we weren’t comfortable taking that risk and it was a unanimous vote with no dissent among the board.
We understand the anger over the cancellation this year and want the community to understand our reasoning. It may not be the popular decision but we’ll stand by it as the right decision.