SALEM — Staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has allowed many people the time to take up new hobbies.
For a group of volunteers in South Salem, however, that hobby focuses on protecting others.
Face masks have quickly become the most visible symbol of COVID-19’s grip on the region — and throughout the country. Outside of Massachusetts, many states are fighting over whether to require them and if businesses can deny service based on whether one is worn.
A small group of Salem volunteers have been producing masks, distributed by Ward 7 Councilor Steve Dibble, since the early days of the region’s pandemic response. The masks are made of cotton outside of the elastic band, are machine-washable, reusable and made with love by a fellow Salemite — such as Ward 7 resident Mary Anne Silva.
“This morning, I happened to see a neighbor I don’t see or talk to that often,” Silva said. “I went out to the front of the yard and said, ‘Do you need a mask?’”
For weeks now, Silva has been making anywhere from 15 to 40 masks a day. Online videos helped teach her how to put them together, and now she’s swimming in supplies to produce more as others in South Salem — like Elizabeth Francis, Leslie Chin and her daughter, Kathryn Chin, according to Dibble — crank out just as many each day.
Silva’s neighbor, it turns out, did need one and they arranged for a contact-less mailbox delivery. Fortunately, she had extras that hadn’t yet been given to Dibble for distribution.
“It feels good to be able to do that,” Silva said. “There’s another elderly woman up the street, and I’ve done the same thing with her and her daughters so she can at least get out a little bit — which I think is important.”
But even as masks start to take on a level of fashion as their use spreads, there are still people in desperate need of protection, according to Dibble. He highlighted one example while talking about deliveries to Salem Housing Authority properties.
“It’s amazing when I deliver a mask to them and they’re wearing an old paper mask, and they say they’ve been wearing (it) for almost two months,” he said. “(You) shouldn’t be wearing a paper mask so much. You can’t even wash it properly.”
Dibble says he’s gone to Silva’s home several times a week, picking up 20 to 30 masks at a time. He estimates the number of masks made by all of the volunteers to be north of 5,000.
And these aren’t just masks that will get people through the next couple of months as the immediate crisis appears to abate.
“The volunteers asked me early on to make sure people hold onto these masks after they receive the donation,” he said. “Hold onto them so that in case COVID returns in the future, we’ll already be prepared with masks already in place all around the city.”
Producing the masks has at times been its own battle, due to scarcity in supplies.
“The elastic is very, very hard to come by,” Silva said. “It comes out of China. One of the volunteers suggested I go to Etsy, and I ordered some there. But it wasn’t coming in, and I went to Amazon and ordered some there thinking I’d have a faster delivery.”
Now, Silva is swimming in elastic, and years of sales from craft stores to feed Silva’s quilting hobby have left her with no shortage of fabric.
“The only supplies you have,” she said, “are thread, the elastic and the material.”
Anyone in need of a mask can contact Dibble via email at email@example.com or by phone at 978-744-7315. Be sure to provide your name, email address and phone number.