On April 3, the CDC recommended 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 which suggests that asymptomatic carriers can transmit the virus, and that masks—cloth masks, not just N95 masks—can help block the release of viral particles. 

These national encouragements became a local mandate on April 19 when Durham city and county government leaders issued an amended order stating that all residents must wear a “clean face covering” in public spaces. 

In early April, right around the time of the CDC’s statement, local doctors Eric Westman, Wickham Simonds, and Larry Greenblatt began talking about the best way to quickly get face coverings to underserved populations. 

While DIY sewing tutorials have exploded online in popularity in recent weeks, having the time or resources to whip out a band of elastic and fabric isn’t a practical option for everybody. 

Within a few days, the doctor’s public health initiative, Covering the Triangle—a grassroots catch-all for making, donating, and sourcing masks—was born. 

“We started to brainstorm about, who do we want to target and how do we want to get them masks?” says Larry Greenblatt, a professor of medicine at Duke. “[Eric Westman] had the idea of employing sewers who were making costumes for the Carolina Ballet, who are organized as independent contractors and are essentially unemployed.” 

In the beginning, Westman paid sewers out of pocket. It wasn’t cheap—about $5 a mask—but employing sewers was a way to pour money back into the local economy. Soon, organizers learned that the Original Mattress Factory could make inexpensive masks at a higher volume. With the virus spreading rapidly, particularly in close quarters like retirement communities, Greenblatt says that organizers felt that they needed to distribute as many masks as possible. 

“We got 600 from them today but there have been days where we’ve purchased a thousand a day,” Greenblatt says of the Original Mattress Factory masks. “We’ll go in a nursing home and bring in thousands of masks—a place like Croasdaile in Durham—we just need the volumes.”

Alongside the masks sourced from the Carolina Ballet and the Original Mattress Factory, Covering the Triangle is also accepting donations of homemade masks.  As of April 25, a GoFundMe for the organization has raised $18,164. Donations haven’t yet met the cost of the growing demand, but the organization is determined to keep distributing face coverings as long as they can. 

And, as of April 24, the organization has distributed 20,000 free masks everywhere from nursing homes to city bus stations. 

Their goal is to get masks to “anyone who’s living or working conditions make impossible for them to observe social distancing,” says organizer Isaac Henrion. That’s “farm workers, poultry workers, bus drivers, bus riders, sex workers, many people who are experiencing homelessness, people in nursing homes, people in assisted living facilities, as well any other high-risk populations.” 

So far, Covering the Triangle has distributed face coverings at Durham County Jail, Polk Correctional Facility, and the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women in addition to grocery stores, county workers, nonprofits working with people experiencing homelessness, and farmworker organizations. 

To make a request for masks, people can fill out this form online. 

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at sedwards@indyweek.com.

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