Over the weekend, the CDC issued a new advisory recommending that everyone in the U.S. help slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a cloth face mask when going out in public.
While hundreds of amateur crafters continue to send makeshift protective gear to the frontlines, an ambitious group of club-going activists in New York City is now aiming to give a cloth mask to every person in the city, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S.
“We believe that masks should be available for every human in New York City, no questions asked,” reads a statement from Masks For The Masses, which describes the group as a volunteer grassroots effort to provide masks to communities throughout the city.
The CDC’s announcement marks a turning point in an ongoing discussion about masks, which until now has focused on the shortages of medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) faced by hospitals and medical workers. Emerging from New York’s underground music scenes, Masks For The Masses is building a citywide distribution network to give away homemade cloth masks, as well as information on how to wear and clean them properly.
“It became clear to me that although people were pushing to get N95 masks for hospitals, no one was really thinking about people in [our] communities,” Layla Fatima, one of the group’s co-founders, told Motherboard. The group’s website includes a form that allows anyone to order a free mask, and its members have been delivering mask-making kits to local crafters, which include instructions and all the materials needed to contribute to their growing stockpile.
Fatima said she and her friends started Masks For The Masses as a small community project for the queer techno, goth, and hardcore music scenes. “For me, growing up in those scenes, it was always about this kind of DIY thing; if you wanna do something, you have to do it together,” she said. “That DIY ethos definitely fits in with the PLUR ethos from the 90’s and 2000’s.”
After being laid off from her social media job in March, Fatima started focusing on the project full-time, and the group’s membership and ambitions have greatly expanded. The group recently unified with the NYC DIY Mask Network, which added more volunteer sewers and combined the two groups' materials to mitigate supply chain issues.
“We’re trying to get masks into the hands of people as quickly as possible. Every day counts,” said Patrick Steadman, a software engineer and organizer from the NYC DIY Mask Network who recently joined Masks For The Masses.
The CDC’s advisory was a welcome change from the confusing and often contradictory messaging regarding masks that local and federal authorities have put out in recent weeks. Research has shown that while homemade masks are not nearly as effective as the medical-grade variety, they are still better than nothing. But health experts warn that they must be paired with practices like social distancing to slow the virus' spread.
"One of the main reasons I joined on was this feeling of being so helpless and shouting into the void," said Lindon Chen, who is leading the group's marketing efforts. "There’s so much information out there that it leads to either information overload or in some cases misinformation."
To combat this, Masks For The Masses is combining its mask giveaway with a social media awareness campaign, partnering with popular creators on TikTok and Instagram to disseminate public health information. The goal is to have creators with large audiences make graphics and videos demystifying things like how to properly wear a mask and disinfect your groceries in a bite-sized, meme-ified format.
“It’s about using the power of visual platforms such as Instagram and TikTok to create awareness,” Isabella Serrani, the group’s media coordinator, told Motherboard. “It’s gonna be this place where misinformation is debunked and real statistical information is distributed on social media.”
For now, Masks For The Masses is focused on giving away free masks to every New Yorker who needs one, prioritizing the homeless, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups who are most impacted by the pandemic.
Fatima says the group is currently producing over 100 masks per day, and she hopes to have enough volunteers for a large-scale distribution this coming weekend. That won’t cover all 8.3 million New Yorkers, but since many people already have masks, it’s enough to make a significant impact.
“At the very least, giving every single person something is still better than nothing,” Fatima said. “It should be a human right at this point to be able to protect your health.”