Face Mask Volunteers DIY Their Own Kind of Division of Labor

Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the bottom-up, COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops.


On March 23, Kat Henry was working the cash register at the Kansas City Hobby Lobby, where she's a department manager. It was the last day before the store shut down to avoid spreading COVID-19, and customers were stocking up on fabric and sewing supplies—getting ready, she assumed, to do some quilting while hunkered down at home. "We tend to see that when it's going to snow," she says. "People kind of rush in and buy all the supplies."

Overhearing customers' conversation, she soon realized she was wrong. The cloth wasn't for quilts but for protective masks. One customer's sister was a nurse who needed covers to wear over the single virus-filtering N95 mask she had to make last all day. Two others were hospice nurses who couldn't get ordinary surgical masks anymore. Volunteering to help them out, Henry herself became part of an international grassroots movement that is filling in the gaps in the pandemic supply chain.

Driving that effort is, first and foremost, the personal threat: friends and loved ones who lack the protection they need. "You suddenly have these waves of public understanding all over the world where people are like, oh, this is bad," says Gui Cavalcanti, founder of Open Source Medical Supplies (OSMS). "They may not be aware of the larger issues at play in the supply chain, but they certainly know that their spouse is going to work without safety equipment."

Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops. But there is a major difference. No long-established agency like the Red Cross is coordinating today's efforts. They are completely bottom-up. Contrary to social critics nostalgic for the bowling leagues and civic clubs of the 1950s, Americans have lost neither the ability nor the inclination to band together to help their communities. We just have new tools for coordinating and sharing information. And the self-help has gone global.

In Baltimore, the Open Works makerspace is using its laser cutters to create face shields and has enlisted 260 libraries, military bases, and individuals with 3D printers to make the visors that hold them. Volunteers download the plans and drop off the parts at Open Works, which assembles the shields into packs for local hospitals. The design comes from the website of a Czech company called Prusa Research. "In three days," Prusa says, "we went through dozens of prototypes and two verifications with the Czech Ministry of Health." Open Works has supplied more than 8,000 shields to local health care workers.

In the Philippines, the Manila Protective Gear Sewing Club took apart existing protective suits to create open-source patterns and instructions that anyone can download as a Google doc. The group started with a one-piece version for men, then added a two-piece version that makes it easier for women to use the bathroom. Designed to be made of Tyvek 1433R, a material widely available in hardware stores, the outfits aren't as impermeable as medical-grade bunny suits for high-risk situations, but they protect staff who don't come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients.

In the San Fernando Valley, a group called the Face Mask Fairies meets twice a week on Zoom to divvy up jobs, share resources, identify needs, and coordinate pickups and deliveries. They track everything on a shared Google doc and divide up the labor, with some volunteers simply ironing fabric, others cutting, some sewing, and others picking up and delivering completed masks. By the end of April, they'd given more than 1,500 to hospitals, animal shelters, day care centers, and supermarkets.

All the local efforts add up, especially as volunteers share information. Facebook, in particular, has proven an invaluable tool for finding out who needs what, who can make it, what works, and what doesn't.

In early March, Cavalcanti started the Open Source COVID 19 Medical Supplies group on Facebook. It now has 73,000 members and has translated its medical supply guides into 40 languages. From March 28 to April 20, members produced 2.3 million items in 45 countries, led by the U.S. and India.

Cavalcanti spotted the supply problem early on, when China's coronavirus shutdown made it impossible to get crucial parts for his robotics company. "What I was really worried about—and have only seen more confirmation of—is that centralized manufacturing and centralized logistical chains get disrupted," he says. "It just takes one plane to not fly to not have several million masks that you were going to order."

Now operating beyond Facebook as Open Source Medical Supplies, the group emphasizes local resilience and good information. It has 160 local chapters and 660 volunteers who coordinate via the computer application Slack. "The things that need to be centralized are data—high quality vetted information," he says. "Distributed information is subject to misinformation attacks. It's subject to scope creep, as people get excited about certain things." Engineers like him, he cautions, are prone to "fixate on the shiniest problem" rather than applying what already works.

OSMS has assembled medical experts to check materials and designs, such as the Manila bunny suit. "Our job is to find the things other people are doing and make sure they're not harmful and then amplify them," Cavalcanti says. "We're not here to solve the problem all over again."

Through the Facebook group, hobbyists who otherwise wouldn't communicate have found ways to help each other. For people sewing face masks, making the bias-tape ties that hold the masks on is the most time-consuming part of the job. When 3D printing enthusiasts learned of the problem, several devised designs for tools for folding the tape, significantly speeding up production. Others came up with jigs for pleating masks. "You started to see infrastructure being one of the things that people want," Cavalcanti says.

Just as the Face Mask Fairies have re-created the division of labor, OSMS volunteers have rediscovered economies of scale as 3D printers prove unable to meet demand. When a hospital needs hundreds of thousands of visors a month, the technology that was great for making one-off prototypes suddenly seems way too slow. "We've now seen probably 10 different groups say, 'This is dumb. We're injection molding now,'" says Cavalcanti. With machine shops largely idle, it isn't hard to get one interested in making molds to supply the local hospital, either pro bono or to bring in much-needed cash. But it does take communication.

Instead of DIY makers, then, chapter volunteers serve as ambassadors and translators. "Connecting that machine shop to that hospital and communicating needs in a way that makes sense is the job of a local organizer that understands how to both speak to the hospital and to the machine shop," says Cavalcanti. "And that's a very specific skill set."

The attractions of this work don't lie in the products themselves. They come from solving immediate, scary problems—and, equally important, from finding purpose and community while much of the world is shut down. "This endeavor has not only filled an area of need for our community but given us a productive purpose," says Michelle Gannes, one of the Face Mask Fairies. "I can't wait to meet in person some of the people on the group as we have developed a virtual camaraderie and hope we'll get to embrace each other after this is all over."

NEXT: Brickbat: Mistaken Identity

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  1. So, it IS a war?

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  2. Poor bastards probably don’t have a license to produce masks, permits to work from home, haven’t filed the business paperwork, aren’t filing their quarterlies, aren’t following the labeling laws, haven’t had the proper OSHA and Health Department inspections, and are violating dozens of other federal, state, and local regulations. Poor bastards are probably going to be facing massive fines and possibly even jail time over this.

    1. Not to mention being clearly racists for not passing them out to “peaceful protesters” with arms so full of loot they cant put on a cloth face covering.

    2. Uncle Sam finna lay some pipe

    3. Can’t even think about this without an environmental impact survey!

  3. 1. “If you are sick,” the CDC says, “you should wear a facemask when you are around other people (e.g., sharing a room or vehicle) and before you enter a healthcare provider’s office.” But “if you are NOT sick,” it adds, “you do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a facemask).
    2. A randomized trial of face masks involving about 7,700 hajj participants in Mecca had less promising results. At the end of the study, which was reported in The Lancet last year, the subjects who received masks—most of whom used them intermittently or not at all—were just as likely to have viral respiratory infections as those who did not. Last year was 2019; most people in C19 panicked 2020 wear their mask intermittently, or just plain wrong like over their mouth only, or hanging around their neck.

    The CDC bit was before politics; now this is the new gospel:
    Oddly enough, for the real flu;
    Unvaccinated Asymptomatic Persons, Including Those at High Risk for Influenza Complications
    No recommendation can be made at this time for mask use in the community by asymptomatic persons, including those at high risk for complications, to prevent exposure to influenza viruses
    But for the magical COVID;
    In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.
    Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.
    The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

    So “cloth face coverings” (note: not called masks) are a voluntary option where anti-social distancing is NOT feasible.

    1. Have faith in the talisman and wear it at all times.

    2. Not in my State. You have to wear a mask anytime you enter a place of business. Then you have some people who just carry it too far. I had a woman bitch me out because I wasn’t wearing a mask while pumping gas. I was called selfish and uncaring, and was told that the mask was to protect others, by a bimbo wearing a mask with an exhalation valve.

      By the way the New England Medical Journal has this to say about masks.

      1. Dude, that was way back in May! The 21st! Ancient history.

      2. My response to anyone attempting to trash my bare face is this:
        “Stand back six feet or more! You are violating federal HIPPA regulations by commenting on my health equipment!”

  4. Wearing a face mask is dangerous.

  5. i advice we always be with our face mask
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    1. Piece of cloth be with you.

  6. Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops. But there is a major difference. No long-established agency like the Red Cross is coordinating today’s efforts

    , and hence one can expect massive lawsuits when people blame the death of their loved ones on “improper and dangerous so-called ‘protective equipment'”.

  7. Current events have shown beyond doubt that masks are the new slavery and requiring masks in open public places is the new insistence on servitude. The winners are Antifa and the Taliban, the murderous, destructive, and authoritarian groups that insist on face covering.

    And yes, if the store says I must wear a mask, I wear one.

    1. As a ‘what a libertarian used to be’ type of person, if a mask is required, I do not patronize the establishment.
      Last week I have a restaurant tell me I had to wear a mask from the door to the table; and oh by the way, they just happened to have some for sale. So I just said no. I am still considering filing a price gouging complaint. (my state has not (yet?) mandated 100% masking.)

      1. Funny, I’ve been to lots of bars that require shirts and also sell T-shirts. Never heard a Karen bitch before.

  8. Making masks, face shields, and other protective equipment is the bottom-up, COVID-19 version of rolling bandages or knitting socks for the troops.

    And for many, it’s a way of feeling like part of the “in” group, and giving in to mass hysteria.

  9. they’ll be ready for covid20

  10. I wear my mask if it’s required.
    Of course, you can buy a medical mask at a pharmacy. But the demand for these products is extremely high, so consumers are constantly complaining about the high price or lack of goods in stock. There is a solution: make a mask yourself:

  11. COVID isn’t a thing anymore.

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  12. The things that need to be centralized are data—high quality vetted information electrician torrance ca

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