Ten thousand free, reusable masks will be given to low-income communities and the elderly, the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development announced in a press release Tuesday. 

The masks will be distributed throughout the county, including at 12 locations in Ann Arbor. The program stems from an executive order Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed in August to provide 4 million free masks throughout the state of Michigan. 

OCED Administrative Assistant David Beck, who works closely with the distribution sites for the program, said masks will be vital as residents brace for colder weather and more indoor activities. 

“Our hope is to be able to get the masks out, to be able to distribute them and have people prepared for winter, and not be scrambling during the winter to provide masks” Beck said. 

Beck said the county has been informally distributing free masks to residents for months.

“Originally there were masks that people were selling and were making that they were donating to us,” Beck said. “If anyone needed a mask we tried to deliver it to them, or they were able to come to our office to pick it up.” 

Beck said the state government’s donation of 10,000 masks has formalized the distribution project, and the program aims to reach as many people conveniently as possible. 

“Even acquiring masks, and particularly reusable masks, may not be as easy for some people in our community than others,” Beck said. “For senior citizens who might not have transportation to go to certain places to buy masks, for those who maybe don’t have the disposable incomes to be able to find masks.” 

The pandemic has shown that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted specific communities, such as low-income families, African Americans and senior citizens, more than others. 

Beck said OCED has been doing important work for these communities, including using donations and funding to help with utilities and rent during the economic shutdown and the current recovery. Beck said the free mask program is an extension of this work.

Though the free mask program is in response to COVID-19, Beck said the community connections forged through its implementation could be useful towards other initiatives going forward.

“Finding new organizations and new places and new groups to be able to work with, I think will be the broader impact,” Beck said. “Hopefully, God forbid, if anything like this happens again … the network that’s already in place will be strengthened. We’’ll be able to start networking out to other organizations and partnering with other organizations to be able to help provide services and other resources as we can.”

Jennifer Howard is the director of the Turner Senior Wellness Program, one of the mask distribution sites in Ann Arbor. She works closely with the elderly in the area.

“When COVID hit, we had to shut everything down, all of our programming was in person and we couldn’t safely bring anybody into the center,” Howard said. “The thing that is really tough on our community is the socialization, and some of the isolation that has come from this.”

Carolina Barillas is a Manchester resident who works as a nanny for a doctor’s family. Barillas said she has been living on a stretched budget due to the pandemic. Since she was laid off for the majority of the summer, Barillas said she has been closely budgeting and watching her money.

Barillas said she thought the free mask program was an important offering to the county. 

“I’m an essential worker and I’m in the high risk category, and I have to go out and work,” Barillas said. “I think they should be free … It’s a lot less stressful, with my very limited funds.” 

Barillas said it was vital for the entire community to practice wearing masks.

“It’s your civic duty to wear a mask,” Barillas said. “To show that you care about other people.” 

In the past few months, the center has been able to reopen a few days a week and begin providing some of these community services, such as exercise programs, cooking classes and other social events, in conjunction with their online efforts. Howard said the free mask program will help the center be able to stay open and keep operations running. 

“We do have a lot of our folks who do not have the resources to purchase the masks that they need, the PPE, that kind of thing,” Howard said. “So this is a really great way for us to have those masks on hand available for them, not only to use within our center but to use for anywhere else that they might go.”

Public Health senior Emily Guo is the co-president of CURIS Public Health Advocacy, a student organization on campus that works to enact public health efforts in the local community. She said affordable, reusable masks are important for low-income communities. 

“(Wearing a mask) is one of the most cost-effective primary prevention strategies for the communities so you don’t have to rely on coming in later, which is more expensive,” Guo said. “(Some people benefitting from the program) have to have in-person contact, which is the case for a lot of low-income communities.” 

Daily News Contributor Paige Hodder can be reached at phodder@umich.edu

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