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Steele Canvas Face Mask Project

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I don’t get out very much anymore, for obvious reasons. However, on the recent occasions that I have dashed out to the deli or stepped out for a fix of sunshine, it’s been hard to miss the face covers people are increasingly opting to wear: surgical masks, home-sewn versions, even T-shirts reworked for the purpose. Until now I haven’t thought to wear one, trusting my social distancing and incessant hand-washing protocol to be enough.

That’s about to change.

Per brand-new recommendations from the Center of Disease Control(CDC), all Americans are now urged to wear a cloth mask as an additional public health measure. This is a marked shift from earlier guidelines that had suggested: If you’re healthy, you do not need a mask. The CDC’s new recommendation does however reiterate that medical- or surgical-grade masks should be reserved for hospital workers and emergency workers.

Medical-grade masks, or N95 respirators as they are known, are in desperately short supply. As are surgical masks that protect health workers, well, slightly more than not wearing one. Instead of dipping into that scarce supply, many have begun making their own at home—but masks made of household materials are both limited in their durability and reuse, and have questionable sanitation. Still, they’re better than nothing, writes Tara Parker-Pope for The Times.

Ryan Huston, the director of sales at Steele Canvas, a 99-year-old manufacturer of canvas goods based in Massachusetts, learned firsthand about the acute shortage of protective masks on the frontlines. “An employee’s mother, who is a nurse, told us about how they were forced to wear N95 masks for days at a time. We were shocked and saddened, but most importantly, we wanted to help.”

Steele Canvas started out in 1921 making steel and canvas baskets for New England coal workers and textile companies.

Photo by Steele Canvas archives

Almost immediately, Steele began redirecting some of its manufacturing capacity from producing storage staples to protective cloth masks. “In addition to helping healthcare workers, John and Paul Lordan, the two owners, saw an opportunity to keep our entire staff employed during the crisis—and from there it was full speed ahead,” Huston says.

The cloth masks that Steele Canvas makes, Huston points out, aren’t medical-grade N95 masks, and should not be treated as a substitute for them, either. The final design features comprehensive face coverage, and is composed of a sturdy, non-porous denim exterior and a 100 percent cotton flannel lined interior for comfort.

Photo by Rocky Luten

The company has been in touch with several medical facilities, desperate to supplement their supply of N95 masks. “The masks we are providing are washable and reusable, which can offer healthcare workers some protection if and when disposable alternatives are not available,” Huston says.

Steele Canvas is hoping that this influx of cloth masks will encourage non-healthcare-workers to hand off N95s to those that absolutely need them, while better protecting themselves and their community. “We want to keep medical masks in the right hands and provide a solution for all those who have access to nothing else,” says Huston. Which is why it is offering a buy-one, donate-one—or donate both—sale, pairing personal protection with community relief. So far, the company has identified four healthcare facilities that will receive the donations.

So yes, it’s probably time for me to start wearing a mask—even on my 2-minute dash to the bodega. This weekend, I plan to buy one, and donate one. My husband plans to do the same. Please join me. But remember, wearing a mask can only go so far—social distancing and frequent hand washing need to follow.

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