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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2020 2 years ago

Sewing machines: Local group creating, donating face masks

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Through the Army of Masks Facebook groups, West Orange-area residents have been sewing fabric face masks for those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
by: Danielle Hendrix Former Associate Editor

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. 

As the coronavirus continues to dominate headlines, there is a good amount of uncertainty and anxiety permeating society. However, there are also armies of people mobilizing to do what they can to contribute.

In Winter Garden, members of the Army of Masks group have been putting their sewing skills to work by creating homemade fabric masks for health care workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic. 

Winter Garden resident Mireille Bani, the Facebook group’s creator, knew there was going to be a growing need for masks and other medical supplies as the virus spread.

“A week after I started this site, some people have started realizing that this is real and it’s happening, and we all need to step up,” Bani said. “We are in this all together, right? What I do is going to impact what’s going to happen to my neighbor here, or the person I would cross paths with elsewhere. … I consider that if I can do something here to help at least a couple of people, that will be great.”

 

ARMY OF MASKS

As Bani spoke a few weeks back with a friend who is a doctor, they knew the situation was going to escalate — and quickly.

“About two weeks ago, he called me and said, ‘I know you know how to sew and you should start maybe trying to do masks — my mom has already started,’” Bani said. “So we started chatting, she gave me a couple of patterns, and then I found others online, and I tried on the one I liked. When I saw that I was able to do it — I consider myself a beginner — I figured, ‘Wait a minute, lots of people would be able to do this.’”

On Friday, March 20, Bani decided to create the Army of Masks group on Facebook. She invited her friends, who invited their friends, and the group began to grow. She quickly realized there was a good amount of interest in the Orlando area, from Winter Garden, Ocoee and Gotha to Windermere, Horizon West and Groveland. 

Although the masks won’t eliminate risk of inhalation of aerosolized virus particles, they can decrease the probability of transmission of airborne particles. They serve as a contingency plan for those who can’t obtain surgical masks on the market.

“We absolutely know that this is not replacing any type of N95 mask or whatever, but we also believe that having something really covering your face if you need to go out for an hour or two … is better than nothing,” Bani said.

Patterns and sewing instructions for the types of masks the group is producing are available on the Army of Masks page. Some of the fabric face masks — made with two layers of cotton, ideally cotton flannel — resemble pleated surgical masks but all are non-surgical masks. The masks all are given to those who need them for free. 

“The most important thing is it needs to be washable … so it can be reused,” Bani said. “All factories around the world right now are doing not just double but triple, quadruple duty to get as many masks out (as possible), but this is happening at the same time as all the countries in the world, so it’s very difficult.”

As of press time, there were more than 50 members of the Army of Masks Greater Orlando/Central Florida group. In one week, the Central Florida group made and delivered more than 1,000 masks — with many more in process.

“I know that the orders are just going to increase and increase, because now they come in from other places,” Bani said. “We will see how this evolves. … In regards (to) health care facilities, what I can say so far is that most of our demands come from smaller facilities (such as) nursing homes and assisted living. We have some of the nurses that are on the road and have to travel to go visit people. We had an order mailed out to Spring Hill … for a pet hospital.”

Bani’s Canadian friend and group moderator, Tonya Dickenson, has been working with a university team to build an app that would match requests for masks with the mask makers themselves. Army of Masks group members complete a form with their information, skill and ability level to be matched with such requests.

“I’m convinced that soon (health care workers) will run out of masks, and obviously (fabric masks) are not the best choice — we all understood that, you don’t need to be a researcher to understand that — but our motto is, ‘Having a fabric mask is better than nothing,’” Bani said. “That’s why we are doing that. … My next step will be to encourage everybody to keep on going and to try to find more people (to help).”

 

‘I CAN DO THIS’
Erin Morris has sewn more than 200 fabric face masks to donate to health care workers and others in the community who need them most.

Erin Morris, a Winter Garden/Horizon West-area resident who owns a small sewing business, has been sewing as many masks as she can in a short period of time. She began seeing posts a few weeks ago about the mask shortages and knew she could do something to help.

Morris posted in a few Facebook groups asking if anyone needed masks. The first day there were some arguments back and forth from group members debating the efficacy of fabric masks, but ultimately, many people began to realize there was a need.

“The first day, there were a lot of naysayers, but then it seemed like almost overnight, it was like an explosion,” she said. “People realized, ‘Oh, these really are needed and have been asked for.’ I have a ton of fabric, and my industrial machine is going as much as I can until I get tired for the day. All these other mask groups started popping up the next day. … It’s kind of scary that they all need these.”

Within a couple of days, Morris made and delivered 80 masks, including 20 masks for Matthew’s Hope, 10 for a critical-care nurse and others for various health care workers and organizations.

Morris has been making pleated masks that look like surgical masks. Elastic is in short supply at the moment, so at some point, she will have to switch over to making masks with fabric ties.

Making dozens of masks at a time can be a daunting task, but Morris is up to the challenge. As of press time, she alone has made and delivered 200 masks.

“It makes me feel great that people are finally coming together and helping the community out,” she said. “People have asked me if I’m selling them, and I’m not selling them — I’m donating them to where they need to go first. I feel like it’s the least I can do to help out. I can’t go out and help at the ER or help a doctor treat a patient because I’m not trained, qualified or educated to do that, but I can do this.”

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Danielle Hendrix was an associate editor for the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com.

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