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Grassroots Groups Make And Donate Masks To Those At Risk

Just weeks ago, experts were still debating whether masking in public truly helped slow the spread of the coronavirus. Then, on April 3, came the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that anyone leaving home wear a facemask. In Pennsylvania, the order came from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office the same day. Now masks are practically a mandatory accessory.

Credit Courtesy of Operation Face Mask
Courtesy of Operation Face Mask
Operation Face Mask founder Jenn Gooch poses April 15 with 55 masks she finished making that morning.

So what’s it like for grassroots volunteer groups that have sprung up to donate masks to those who need them most?

Things have settled down a bit, say organizers of two local efforts, both launched just days after the state-imposed shutdown began, on March 16. But both (mask) MAKERS PGH and Operation Face Mask Pittsburgh are still looking for volunteers with sewing machines to fill the sudden demand for a product that remains in short supply.

Nisha Blackwell is known for her Wilkinsburg-based business Knotzland, which sells handmade bowties fashioned from refurbished and reclaimed fabrics.

“I looked around and realized I have all of the materials to be able to contribute and make masks,” said Blackwell. She started making cotton masks for friends, family, grocery workers, home health aides – anyone at high risk of infection.

She quickly joined forces with others with similar goals in mind. Their joint effort, (mask) MAKERS PGH, continues under the auspices of arts nonprofit Radiant Hall, along with fellow nonprofits and small businesses Knotzland, Protohaven, KerfCase, Firecracker Fabrics, Cut & Sew Studio, and Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.

"I looked around and realized I have all of the materials to be able to contribute and make masks"

“It was kind of this idea like, ‘Hey, we’re all doing things independently, but if we all get together and do them as one, we can have a greater impact and just a more meaningful initiative,” Blackwell said.

The demand is large. Blackwell said that when the group posted its online request form, in late March, it immediately got 4,000 requests. Some, she said, were even from EMTs whose workplaces had undersupplied them.

“Oh, man, I’ve personally made over 200 masks,” she said, speaking by phone April 10. “That’s just me as an individual sitting at the sewing machine.” She said at that time that the group – with a pool of about 300 volunteer fabric-sorters, cutters, and sewers -- had delivered 1,500 masks. Blackwell said she is personally shooting for 50 per week.

(mask) MAKERS PGH’s masks don’t qualify as personal protective equipment (PPE); the cotton fabric, though absorbent, isn’t an effective enough filter. But for essential workers or people who are immune-compromised, they’re much better than nothing. And, as Blackwell notes, “The misconception out there is that … wearing a mask is protecting you from the virus, but in reality it’s protecting the people around you."

"We could have been sewing all year and not been prepared for this"

Another initiative, Operation Face Mask, was launched by Jenn Gooch days after the state-imposed shutdown began, on March 16. At first, working mostly alone, Gooch was getting four hours of sleep a night. But as a professional tailor who works on film and TV productions as a member of the union IATSE 489, she gathered fellow unemployed film workers for a volunteer team that now numbers more than 100.

“I started to get six hours of sleep this week,” said Gooch on Thursday. She was in her garage studio, in Bloomfield, sanitizing and vacuum-packing masks for delivery. “I actually sat down and stitched 55 masks this morning. That took a day-and-a-half with a couple people’s help.”

Gooch and her team are making fairly high-end masks. They’re 7-by-9 inches, pleated like surgical masks, and incorporate a washable filter made of nonwoven polypropylene. In the first five days after she and her seven co-coordinators set up a distribution system, Operation Face Mask had delivered 370 masks, she said. Her goal is 200 a day, which would require a lot of people-hours – 16 volunteers working full-time, she estimates.

"The misconception out there is that wearing a mask is protecting you from the virus, but in reality it's protecting the people around you"

Making any kind of mask is labor-intensive. Blackwell, who makes a living on her sewing machine, says she can make 4.5 an hour.

Gooch said Operation Face Mask received 950 requests on April 3 alone – the day Wolf announced the state was recommending that everyone mask in public. Demand has leveled off, but there is still a two-week wait for masks, she said.

“It’s tough. … We could have been sewing all year and not been prepared for this,” said Gooch, speaking just before the state issued a new mandate requiring most business employees and customers to be masked.

Both groups – two among several mask-making initiatives in the region – depend on big pools of volunteers and a carefully organized division of labor. Donated materials are a key. (mask) MAKERS PGH gets much of its fabric from Firecracker Fabrics and Creative Reuse. Gooch said the polypropylene fabric needed for its filters was getting hard to come by until donors stepped up, including the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Don’s Appliances: Both had stores of totebags made out of the very same stuff.

Volunteers for both (mask) MAKERS PGH and Operation Face Mask pick up the necessary materials, do their work, then deliver the finished products. Everyone’s working alone at home, of course, and contact between volunteers is minimized. If people who request masks can’t pick them up, the masks are delivered by volunteer drivers and cyclists. The groups take cash donations, too, to offset purchases of materials they can’t get donated, and to pay for gas for drivers, and if necessary, for shipping masks.

Gooch emphasized that for those who don't volunteer to make masks, the next best thing is to make their own. Patterns and tutorials are plentiful online, and Operation Face Mask plans to post its own demos and other DIY content. The number of facemasks needed in Pittsburgh is “a really large number,” she said. “And the more people that make their own masks, the more we can make that number manageable.”

Gooch said she was heartened by the way Pittsburgh has rallied around mask-making. “It’s one of those complicated things where it takes a trying time to see how strong our neighbors are, how strong our community is,” she said.

More information about (mask) MAKERS PGH is here.

More information about Operation Face Mask is here.