Maskmakers prep for expanded use by public

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2020 1:45:36 PM
Modified: 4/3/2020 4:52:28 PM

LEBANON — Honor Hingston-Cox started a Facebook group recently to gather information for people in the Upper Valley who are making cloth masks for health care workers. She has made a few masks herself, but concentrates mainly on moderating the UV Mask Makers page, where the group’s 300-plus members can trade supplies and advice.

This week, Hingston-Cox wore one of her masks to the grocery store, partly as an experiment to see what it would be like. At the Lebanon Co-op, at Centerra, people moved away from her.

“Everybody gave me space,” Hingston-Cox, of Lebanon, said in a phone interview Thursday. “I was the only person wearing a mask. It was very odd.”

Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the biggest public health bodies, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised the public that the only people who need to wear masks are those in danger of communicating the virus. But that advice seems likely to change: The CDC is considering whether to require people in public  to wear cloth masks.

Citizens have been putting   two and two together on their own. If people with the virus don’t always show symptoms, and if the virus can spread through airborne droplets, then couldn’t people who venture out of their homes for supplies be spreading COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, without knowing it? Why then shouldn’t people be wearing masks, as a precaution?

State officials are offering new guidance on masks. At a news conference Friday morning, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine recommended that Vermonters wear cloth face-coverings in public, even if they have no symptoms, to help prevent spreading the virus. But he stressed that medical-grade masks need to be reserved for health care providers and that social distancing and staying at home are still the most important measures.

“Social distancing is still the policy,” Levine said.

“I want to be clear, this is not a substitute for staying home, and this is not an excuse to mingle with others,” Gov. Phil Scott said at the news conference.

“We don’t want anyone to be given the false impression that this will protect them, themselves, from contracting this virus, but it could … provide relief from you spreading it to someone else.”

Linda Austin, a maskmaker in Dover, N.H., started wearing a mask on trips away from home earlier this week. “I think they’re behind the 8-ball,” she said of government officials. Even if you speak to somebody and neither person is wearing a mask, droplets spray into the air, she noted. “I’m just not taking that chance.”

Part of a group that was making masks for people in health care and at nursing homes and correctional facilities, Austin saw needs elsewhere. She started a subgroup, Coastal Mask Makers, that supplies homemade masks to retail workers.

“I felt that people in grocery stores were exposed,” she said. Her son works at a Market Basket, and wears an N95 respirator that the company provided.

She has been cold-calling grocery stores and has found that store managers often kicked her inquiry to corporate higher-ups. “I think they’re afraid to make a decision,” she said.

She had one store official tell her that they’d like their workers to have masks, but were afraid it would scare off customers.

“The stigma behind this needs to change,” she said.

So far, she has delivered masks to two Shaw’s stores, in Dover and North Hampton, and to CVS and Walgreens in Dover.

When a store wants masks, she finds out how many employees there are, then brings two masks per employee, which allows for laundering. The Coastal Mask Makers have a piecework assembly line set up, with some people laundering the fabric, others cutting it and a third group doing the sewing. Austin made 74 masks on Wednesday. “I was 100% heads down on that,” she said.

Masks for retail workers should be made from two layers of fabric that has been laundered in advance, and the finished masks should be washed again in hot water with a fragrance-free detergent. Hospitals have the capacity to launder donated masks, but a retail worker might not, at least not immediately.

If the CDC does reconsider its mask recommendation, Austin will be ready. “I have 100 masks ready to go,” she said, and more on the way.

Hingston-Cox said that if nothing else, masks reinforce social distancing, the 6-foot gap people are supposed to maintain in public.

“If there are people out there wondering how to get that 6-foot distance,” they might want to try a mask, she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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