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Volunteer Mask Makers Mobilize To Help Protect Frontline Workers Against COVID-19

Gov. Mike DeWine has sounded the alarm for weeks about a dangerous shortage of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment in Ohio. The so-called PPE is critical for protecting hospital staff, first responders and others on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, an army of volunteers is mobilizing to help meet the need, a need that’s increasing fast as health officials now recommend everyone wear cloth masks in public places where social distancing is difficult.

The urgency has sewing machines across the Miami Valley buzzing.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit Ohio, Debra Howard ran the costume shop at the Human Race Theater Company in Dayton. Now, she spends her days in front of her home sewing machine. She’s among the countless numbers of newly minted mask makers coast to coast racing around the clock to produce face coverings for first responders.

“We’re going to need millions of them and since I'm not able to work on our actual productions, this is a great use of my time. I'm thrilled to be doing it,” says Howard.

The masks she’s making are not the N95 medical-grade ones health officials say are most needed to protect doctors, nurses and health workers.

Howard’s following a pattern for cotton masks that look similar to ones now recommended by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They're the kind that hang from the ears by elastic to cover the wearer’s nose and mouth.

“It requires such a small piece of fabric," she says, "so we've been able to use lots of scraps, lots of things that we've set aside maybe to make a pocket with.”

It’s been common over the last few weeks to hear DeWine describe the state’s response to the coronavirus as a war and Howard says today’s mask-making volunteer efforts remind her of other times in history when ordinary American citizens went into service, especially, she says, World War II.

“People would save hubcaps, donate scrap metals, and I think there was a time when people were crocheting bandages," she says. "So, this is the same idea, just a different expression.”

And for some creative freelancers unemployed during the statewide Stay At Home order, volunteering is a welcome chance to stay busy while deploying their expert skills for a good cause.

Heather Powell at her home sewing machine.
Credit Heather Powell
Heather Powell at her home sewing machine.

Heather Powell is a Springboro-based director and former prop master. She and some out-of-work theatre friends are coordinating to fix thousands of faulty N95 masks for the Ohio Health Department.

“And I think a lot of us just feel stuck and useless at home right now, even though it's the most useful thing we can be doing is staying home," Powell says. "So, I think this just gave everybody a little boost of energy of being useful in this time.”

She says she had no trouble recruiting people from the arts community to sew.

“Suddenly so many people are out of work, but they have a sewing machine and they've got a collection of thread and they're willing to pitch in and help. I think I have three costume designers and stitchers and the prop master at Wright State said yes. I've got a couple stage managers on board.”

But it’s not just theatre people who are making masks in Dayton.

Andrew Bennett and his wife run a small home-based Beavercreek business making weighted blankets and other special sensory products for people with autism, PTSD or anxiety.

His wife also works in a pharmacy. And Bennett says workers were on the job for weeks without protection against the coronavirus. They didn’t have masks.

“Her coworkers, knowing that she was pretty crafty and used to sewing, they asked her if she could make masks for them. And from that point on, she just realized, this is something that's really easy to do," he says. "With her penchant for sewing anyway, she can crank out seven or eight masks in an hour.”

Andrew Bennett and his wife run a specialty business from home making sensory products for people with autism, anxiety and other issues. Now, the business is cranking out masks for non-hospital frontline workers.
Credit Andrew Bennett
Andrew Bennett and his wife run a specialty business from home making sensory products for people with autism, anxiety and other issues. Now, the business is cranking out masks for non-hospital frontline workers.

With only essential businesses open during the non-essential business shutdown, Bennett’s business is slow.

He says he and his wife took a look at their stockpile of fabric and decided to use it crank out masks for other people whose jobs put them at high risk for infection.

“Our goal was for the community first before hospitals. Our thought process was that there are many, many people making them for the hospitals because that's where the requests came from first. But there are a lot of people on the frontlines who are not at hospitals, there are health-care professionals and they also need the masks," he says. "So, we started talking to people who were either home health aides or worked at nursing homes, people at pharmacies, people at grocery stores and people with just generally weak immune systems.”

Bennett posted on his company’s Facebook page to get the word out. Since then, he says, demand has been overwhelming.

“We've had people respond from as far away as Colorado, Pennsylvania, people in Florida, as well as a ton of people here in the local community. There are people who need masks all over the country and if we're equipped to deal with it, that's one way we can help out the community in the situation we’re in.”

Bennett's careful about social-distancing. They distribute their masks without any face-to-face contact –– for free. The company is accepting donations to help defray the cost of materials.

He says they plan to continue making masks for as long as they’re needed.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding America initiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.