Local volunteers making masks for essential retail workers

Ken Kellar

A new local Facebook group is aiming to make a difference and support essential retail workers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

JoAnne Formanek Gustafson created the Facebook group “Make Masks for Fort Frances Essential Workers” as a way to help give back to frontline retail workers who still go into grocery stores and other essential businesses. She explained that while she’d been mulling the idea over for a while, the impetus to actually start it came only recently.

“I’ve been watching different things,” Formanek Gustafson said.

“Probably in the middle of March… I noticed that some places in Ontario were actually making masks and they were being pretty active about it, but at that point I didn’t even know, thinking about things like the medical community, were they interested in that and really the recommendations were pretty mixed.”

However, when Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam made the announcement on April 6 that, yes, face masks could help cut down the spread of COVID-19, Formanek Gustafson went into action.

“At that point it’s like, ‘okay, so actually that’s something that the government is acknowledging could be useful,'” she recalled.

“I thought, ‘who better than the retail workers?’ A lot of places really don’t have access [to masks] and they’re hard to get right now anyway. Any kind of mask is being reserved more for healthcare workers. So you’ve got a lot of people who are not making a lot of money, they are people who, really, that’s their income, so it’s pretty hard for them not to go to work, but they’re at great risk.”

Formanek Gustafson reasoned that any way to help mitigate the risk was worthwhile, and consulted with friends who she said “had connections,” and was eventually pointed in the direction of the Emo District Lions Club to help organize the efforts.

“I called Joanne Ogden,” formanek Gustafson said.

“She’s a nurse and I’m familiar with Joanne. She of course consulted with the club first and they were right on board, So like that, bang, everything was just off and running.”

Formanek Gustafson said that since the group has been active on Facebook, she’s connected with 16 or 17 people who are sewing masks using a free template that has been provided on the group.

The design for the mask is simple and is meant to be washable and reuseable, though Formanek Gustafson is quick to note they are not of medical quality.

“It’s like a contoured mask,” she explained.

“Most people are making it with ties because elastic is not available and… I wouldn’t want elastic behind my ears for eight hours anyway. It has a little pocket that you can put an additional filter in and some of the filtering fabric you can get is used in things like furnace filters. It’s a polyester type and it takes out particles up to, I think, point three microns.”

Even without extra filters placed into the masks, the type of fabric that is used can provide a good deal of filtration already, with two layers of quilting weight fabric filtering out roughly 50 percent of particles, according to Formanek Gustafson. Dr. Tam herself noted on April 6 that the goal of the mask is not to prevent a healthy person from getting COVID-19, but instead the non-medical masks help to keep a presymptomatic or asymptomatic person -someone who has COVID-19 but isn’t showing the symptoms- from unknowingly spreading it to others.

Each retail worker is given four masks and instructions on how to use, care for and clean them.

Asked if finding the supplies for people to make masks out of was proving difficult as businesses around town have closed, Formanek Gustafson noted that those who sew are likely to have quite a bit of material on hand already.

“If you have people who are sewers or quilters, they’ve usually got a fair bit of fabric around,” she explained.

“One woman I know, she made 20 masks just out of bits and pieces she had around. And then to make ties, you can make ties out of strips of fabric or you can use different materials for that. So that’s where it gets tricky.”

While avoiding elastic ties is easy, as Formanek Gustafson mentioned previously they’re not available, finding a suitable replacement is a touch more difficult. Some examples of masks that have already been made show the solution is as creative as the people who are making them, with some using strips of fabric, knitting yarn or other surprising, but perfectly reasonable, materials.

“We had a guy step up and then he has shoelaces,” Formanek Gustafson explained.

“I think he’d been selling at one point, but he’s going to donate some shoelaces that we can use for the ties. So you just stitch those right in. It’s amazing.”

While Formanek Gustafson is the one responsible for starting the group, she’s quick to stress that it’s not about her, and noted that the community rallied behind her to help make and distribute the masks.

“I had the idea, but really, how quickly people in the community stepped forward, it’s great,” she said.

People interested in helping out can fill a variety of roles, even if they aren’t handy with a sewing machine or kit.

“We have some people who do things like delivery or some people would do packaging of the masks,” Formanek Gustafson said.

“I’ve got someone doing photocopy work. We’re putting instructions with [the masks]. So there’s different roles that they can take on.”

She also said that the group would also accept monetary donations, as sewers still need to replenish their materials, and that Betty’s had been in touch about fabric they had that could be purchased at “a little bit of a deal.”

Even as these masks begin to see more and more use out among the public, Formanek Gustafson encouraged people to not become complacent in the face of COVID-19.

“Masks don’t replace all the other recommendations, they’re just another measure,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean we should go out more because we have masks, it doesn’t mean that we should go to the store more. In fact, you know what? We need to really be careful about that, because for us as a consumer, that’s one thing, but these people are making a living and anything we can do to reduce the impact on them is helping all of us.”

Anyone interested in helping out by making masks, delivering completed kits or any other roles they might be able to fill is asked to get in touch using the “”Make Masks for Fort Frances Essential Workers” Facebook page.