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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

One Year And 42k Face Masks Later, Volunteer Sewing Brigade Slowing Down

Courtesy of Sew Masks 4 Cincy
Volunteers sort donated masks in summer 2020.

Update April 15, 2021

Since this story published on March 23, 2021, Sew Masks 4 Cincy founder Esther Kang now says it's time for the project to end.

"After a lot of thought and reflection, we have decided it is time to retire Sew Masks 4 Cincy," she writes in a statement. "In January, schools started asking for masks for next school year. Initially, I thought this meant we would continue through the summer into the fall. But upon more reflection and seeing the vaccine rollout speed up, I know it is time to retire our mission."

The final volunteer date to pick up fabric will be May 15. People have until May 3 to register. The organization will collect masks through May 1, after that it recommends donating them to "your local grocery store or contact your local schools."

Original Post:

As coronavirus shutdowns and shortages rolled across the country in March 2020, it became clear there weren't enough face masks to help protect frontline health care workers — and the general public — from the deadly airborne virus. Enter Esther Kang, a team of dedicated volunteers, and an effort called Sew Masks 4 Cincy.<--break->

Kang got the idea after a friend in the nursing field expressed an immediate need for face coverings. A Facebook group calling for volunteer sewerslaunched March 20, 2020. It had more than 6,000 members within six days.

"It's absolutely incredible that we have donated over 42,000 masks to over 100 frontline facilities in the Greater Cincinnati region, which is 100% thanks to the amazing volunteers — we call them our 'sewing heroes,' " Kang says. "They've been sewing masks day in and day out for the last year. We did the math and that's over 115 masks every day."

In the early days of the pandemic federal health officials were unclear about whether homemade face coverings were necessary or effective. That guidance later changed and masks are now required many places and have been shown to be very successful at helping stop the spread of COVID-19.

Despite mixed messages on efficacy, Kang and her team were fielding hundreds of requests from across the Tri-State — nurses who needed something to cover their surgical masks to prolong their usage; nursing homes that couldn't get enough PPE for their employees; firefighters, children's services organizations, correctional facilities, developmental disability services and more.

"The project changed," she explains. "In the beginning we were going to do just hospitals and we got such a huge wave of other frontline facilities saying 'Hey, we really need masks. We need help.' "

Since face coverings were scarce, Kang says the team decided to open the program to all frontline workers. By summer, schools looking ahead to the fall began asking them to provide masks for teachers, staff and students, and Sew Masks 4 Cincy agreed.

Not Slowing Down

As the vaccine rollout continues and masks are more readily available, you might think demand would relax. Kang says that's not the case, especially when it comes to schools. Sew Masks 4 Cincy donated 4,000 masks to Cincinnati Public Schools in January and February, and — since none of the approved vaccines are currently available for children under 16 — it's already fielding requests from districts looking ahead to the next school year.

"Our team is meeting and trying to decide what we'll be doing about the fall and our long-term plans, but the need is still there," Kang says, adding she never expected the project would go on this long. "The schools are going to need masks for the fall again so that's kind of the big task ahead for us."

Sew Masks 4 Cincy received 501(c)(3) status in mid-May. It remains volunteer-run. The team provides sewing kits for people to assemble and return, complete with fabric and supplies provided by donations from places like Michaels, Jo-Ann Stores and Standard Textile.

Kang says thousands of donated masks come in each month. Some volunteers provide their own materials, too. Several area businesses have also done fundraisers for the group throughout the past year.

Speak Up

Kang says the project has given her a lot of hope and she's been overwhelmed to see the Cincinnati region come together during such trying circumstances. She's asking people to keep spreading that love and kindness, even if it doesn't involve sewing a mask.

"It's been really hard being a Korean-American immigrant and watching what's happening all across America with the hate towards Asian Americans, and I would just encourage people in Cincinnati to come together and do acts of kindness towards each other and people who don't look like you."

She encourages people to speak up when you hear or see something inappropriate or hateful. The pandemic, she says, has exacerbated lots of existing problems, including racism.

"If we can come together and make 42,000 masks for frontline facilities in a year, how much can we accomplish together to shut down racism, to shut down the hate and the pain and the anxiety that's grown over this last year because of the pandemic? The growth that we could have together just with acts of kindness is extraordinary.

"I know that we can do so much more. While it won't be physically tangible like a mask it will be remembered and shared and passed on."

This story was first published on March 23, 2021.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.