Just as you intuitively reach for your jacket, a trip out in public now prompts you to snag another part of your wardrobe: your mask.

Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have shown that they can be more than a public health announcement.

Just ask Doug Altshuler, founder of Masks4Missions. His organization partners with Vermont nonprofits to design, make, distribute and sell subsidized masks that represent those nonprofits.

Masks4Missions was born out of Atshuler’s drive to help Shelburne Farms, where he had planned to work after graduating high school this year.

COVID-19 halted that plan, so he decided to help the nonprofit by designing and selling masks with Shelburne Farms branding.

He also saw it as an opportunity to bridge the feeling of isolation. These masks have the potential to “help the nonprofit connect with the community and also help people express their beliefs,” he said.

Sure enough, the effort blossomed into a more robust initiative with other nonprofits. Partnerships with Burlington City Arts, the Vermont Community Foundation and Governor’s Institute of Vermont particularly helped pave the way for planning, funding and community connection.

Masks4Missions organized an inaugural Vermont Mask Week and Vermont Mask Day on Oct. 6 to promote health and community.

Gov. Phil Scott wore a Vermont Mask Day mask during his press conference that day and brought to light Masks4Missions’ goal of distributing over 300,000 masks statewide. The week served as a collaboration with Higher Ground and ended with a Grace Potter event at the Champlain Valley Expo.

Masks4Missions.org has Vermont Mask Day tie dye masks and DYI masks retailing for $5 and $10 for nonprofit. “For every mask that we sell, all of the profits go right to the nonprofit,” Atshuler said. “Whenever you buy that mask, you should feel like you’re giving to that nonprofit.”

“At the end of the day, if my job is no longer applicable making masks, I’m a happy guy,” he said. “My goal is to never have to make another mask in my life. None of us really want to wear them; we just want to get past COVID, but right now it’s what we need to do for our community.”

Art and civic engagement

Some artists, like Heidi Hotmer, have been on the mask-making scene from the beginning. Hotmer is the owner of Heidi’s Haberdashery, which offers a collection of handmade jewelry, accessories, gifts, and more.

In the early stages of COVID-19, Hotmer — who lives on the Monkton/Hinesburg border — made a sharp pivot by temporarily shutting down her business to focus on sewing and donating masks.

“I tried to meet the specific needs of whatever group I was donating to as far as mask design,” she said.

Hotmer has made 1,045 masks and has donated them to the Vermont Department of Children and Families, the Counseling Service of Addison County and the Vermont Veteran’s Home — and used social media to reach high-risk people in need of protection.

“There are many masks available out there, but if we have to wear them, why not get some sort of enjoyment out of it?” she said.

Masks also have the potential to spark civic engagement. With Election Day a few weeks away, blue masks with “VOTE” written on the side are sprouting up throughout the state.

Those are courtesy of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a grassroots advocacy organization, which has been sending them to Vermonters who pledge to vote and commit to having three other people do the same.

As of early October, over 300 masks have been distributed, according to Jake Van Wolvelear, assistant director of VPIRG.

“It really is true that politics is a participation sport, and that’s a big part of what being a VPIRG Vote Safe Ambassador is about for me — just making sure that young people feel comfortable and well informed when they go to vote,” said Elliot Rice, a Shelburne resident and sophomore at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.

“I think wearing the ‘vote’ mask is a great way to show that I care about my community and that young people have a place in the democratic process,” he said. “Also, since we can’t see each other’s faces as well now while wearing masks, expressing myself by reminding people to vote seems like a good way to make it a little more personal.”

Though Rice is attending college out-of-state, the message still translates to his peers and “has certainly gotten a lot of comments around campus.”

Donations in demand

In March, the nearby city of Burlington launched the BTV Community Mask Initiative to produce and distribute masks to essential workers and the city’s more vulnerable residents. 

Thanks to partnerships with companies like Lyric Theatre Company and Vermont Teddy Bear Company as well as hundreds of community sewers, Burlington achieved its goal of making and distributing more than 20,000 masks to over 80 organizations by May 15.

The initiative is still on-going, according to Brian Lowe, chief innovation officer of Burlington’s Innovation and Technology Department.

“We have distributed about 26,000 masks total through that initial effort that started in March—where we set up distributions at grocery stores, cultural centers, and brought them to dozens of locations around town—and then we have distributed many thousands more through the airport, the help of some interested people in the community, and people coming by to pick up masks for themselves at City Hall, the library, the police station and the City Arts gallery,” he stated.

Following the mandate, the state committed to providing 300,000 cloth masks to the public, emergency responders and select agencies.

Masks are still valuable and in demand, according to Lowe.

Erin Evarts, Lyric Theater Company’s executive director, can attest to that. 

Lyric Theatre Company encourages volunteers to stop by its South Burlington location between 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. on weekdays to pick up sewing kits.

“If you know how to sew, this is an easy way to make a direct impact on your community,” Evarts said.

Kits are also available at Vermont Teddy Bear Company for 24/7 contactless pick-up and drop-off of finished masks, or volunteers can keep or distribute the masks themselves, said Angela Lavalla, technical design manager at Vermont Teddy Bear Company.

“Right now, we have a home sewing network of around 200 volunteers and to date with both in-house masks and home sewing volunteers, we have made around 90,000 masks,” she said.

The company has committed to making 125,000 masks for donation.

“The fabric for our adult masks was donated by Bees Wrap, so it’s been fun to spot our Teddy Bear masks around town,” Lavalla added.

Lyric Theatre Company and volunteers like Hotmer have also used Bees Wrap fabric. Some fabrics even have a unique history, according to Evarts.

“There are fabrics that have come from different costumes over the years,” she said. She once saw someone “with a fabric that was, at one point, a Von Trapp child’s costume.”

“In theater, we love a good mask,” she said. “If putting on a mask makes you a hero, then I think that’s something really kind of special. Everyone gets to play the hero right now.”

Here to stay?

Flu season is back, and the masks are on — but could they stick around for much longer, even once the pandemic subsides?

“Mask wearing will probably continue through spring; beyond that, I know Dr. Fauci indicated several months ago that we might start changing the way we greet each other, particularly during flu season,” said Tracy Dolan, the deputy health commissioner at the Vermont Department of Health.

“I doubt we’ll get back to a mandate unless we have another serious epidemic, but we may see it just as part of American culture in the same way that’s it’s been adopted by a lot of Asian cultures.”

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