In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, face masks will soon be available to Durham County residents deemed most at-risk for contracting the virus.

This week, the Durham County Board of County Commissioners updated an initiative known as the Face Covering Project that will make available more than 50,000 masks to select communities.

Last month, the CDC recommended that Americans wear face coverings in public to protect themselves and others from the rapidly spreading coronavirus. This recommendation came alongside a growing body of research that indicated that asymptomatic carriers can transmit the virus, and that mask—cloth masks, not just N95 masks—can help block the release of viral particles. 

On April 19, Durham city and county leaders issued an amended stay-at-home order mandating that all residents wear a “clean face covering” in public spaces. 

Part of the reasoning behind the Face Covering Project is that a significant number of impoverished Durham residents can’t afford the masks.

The county commissioners chipped in $21,525 to fund the project in partnership with city officials, who are donating $35,475 to the cause, and Durham Public Schools, which is contributing $10,000.

The project will be launched in two weeks. Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead told the INDY this week that he’s grateful that the funds will be available “to those who need them the most.”

However, the county courthouse will reopen Monday, one week before the Face Covering Project begins. Birkhead said he’s expecting at least 400 people to arrive that day for court hearings and other legal obligations.

Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the Board of Commissioners, said during a commissioners meeting on Monday that sheriff was worried some residents would arrive at the courthouse unmasked. 

On Thursday Birkhead said in a statement that a limited number of face masks will be made available to courthouse visitors.

Birkhead told the INDY that deputies will screen those coming to the Justice Center to conduct official business. The screenings will include temperature checks and questions related to possible exposure to the virus.

The Face Covering Project is the brainchild of Commissioner Brenda Howerton, who told the INDY that she proposed the initiative after a citizen called and complained that she was afraid to board a public bus because so many riders were unmasked.

Howerton teamed up with fellow ommissioner Ellen Reckhow to low-income neighborhoods.

The project will pay outreach workers $15 an hour to distribute the masks, Jacobs said on Monday.

The commissioners contacted Dr. Elaine Hart-Brothers, founder and director of the Community Health Coalition, a Durham nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate racial health disparities.

Isaac Henrion, who has worked with the public health initiative Covering the Triangle, is the project coordinator for the county. His work includes organizing the outreach workers, community residents, and leaders who are involved with the initiative.

Henrion could not be reached for comment this week.

Hart-Brothers says targeted mask distribution locations include stores, low-income communities, social groups, churches, faith centers, bus drivers and their riders, small restaurants, and grocery stores.

In addition to face masks, Hart-Brothers says the outreach workers will offer residents health and safety information to help them stay safe during the crisis.

“We want to try and protect people from the virus as much as possible,” Howerton says. 

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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