When Penny Wilcox was told the threat of COVID-19 would keep her out of the Cornerstone Hospice kitchen for a time, she got mad. Then, she took action. “It broke my heart when they said we were not allowed in there indefinitely,” said Wilcox, a hospice volunteer since moving to The Villages in 2013. It didn’t take very long for the Village of Hillsborough resident to put another of her talents into service. An avid quilter, she’s now part of a growing army — of Villagers and beyond — answering pleas from the health care community for face masks as they combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Word is spreading, but there’s so much need in this area,” said Wilcox. “I’m still helping hospice in a small way.”
Whether working individually or in small — socially distanced — groups, Villagers by the dozens have picked up material and fired up their machines to join the global appeal for protective equipment — even of the non-fabric variety.
“We’re all doing what we can,” said Jose Rodriguez, an instructor at The Villages High School’s graphic design academy. While teaching online from his home in Belleview, he is using the school’s 3-D printer and extra material to make medical visors and plastic masks.
“We’re down at the end of the year here and we have leftover materials,” Rodriguez said.
He’s running the school’s 3-D printer nonstop to make 18 visors that will hold clear face shields for the intensive care unit at UF Health The Villages Hospital.
Rodriguez, who teaches graphic design, screen printing and 3-D printing, made three visors before asking recipients to test them and offer feedback. The hospital is asking for the other 15 by the end of the weekend.
Rodriguez also printed three plastic medical masks designed to fit snugly to the face and hold a filter, destined for a Gainesville cardiologist.
“We’re not charging anybody,” he said. “We’re just using up the material we have.”
No matter the material, many mask-makers have viewed the effort as a way to fill the void as they wait out a return to everyday living.
It’s a push that extends from the grassroots level all the way into businesses of all sizes. Clothing brands such as Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Nike and Gap Inc. have announced they are shifting resources to make personal protective equipment.
On Thursday, Jacksonville-based Fanatics Inc. announced it would halt production of Major League Baseball jerseys to create masks and gowns to give to hospitals. One day earlier, Apple Inc. increased its production commitment from 2 million face masks to 10 million.
“These people deserve our debt of gratitude for all of the work they’re doing on the front lines,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a Twitter video.
Those numbers in no way diminish what’s being produced at the local level.
“The outpouring among (those who sew) and quilters has been tremendous,” said Yvonne Wecker, a Village of McClure resident who coordinates local efforts for the Florida Face Mask Warriors collective. The group is part of a national Face Mask Warriors initiative that has taken hold in recent weeks.
The Villages sector delivered 68 face masks on Thursday to Elan Buena Vista Senior Living, with a commitment to deliver 110 more.
Wecker said she’s been leaving precut packages of fabric on her front porch for volunteers to come and pick up. “They email me or text me so I can keep track of it all,” she said.
Wecker is a member of the Fenney Sewcialites, one of 24 chapters of the Quilting Guild of The Villages. Of the 60 members in her chapter, “we’ve got probably a good 30” contributing face masks.
Several other guild chapters also have members engaged in the effort.
Though the masks don’t meet Food and Drug Administration guidelines, they can be used in situations that don’t require the more protective N95 respirator masks. Several facilities also have used cloth masks over the stronger masks in an effort to prolong their lifespan.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines to say facilities that run low on surgical masks should consider ways to keep them in use for an entire shift. In a dire situation, the CDC said, scarves or bandanas could be utilized.
“Where the threat isn’t as strong, they’re using our masks as a backup,” said Tessa Dorscheid, a Summerfield resident and Facebook co-coordinator of the Florida Face Mask Warriors site.
Dorscheid noted there typically are two varieties of handmade masks. Some feature a pocket in which a filter can be inserted — perhaps a cut-up vacuum bag or thick paper towel. Most are a solid piece of cloth with no inner filter.
“These can be washed and sanitized over and over,” said Dorscheid.
Wilcox has a daughter who works as a nurse in Virginia.
“She says the homemade mask protects you from (cough) droplets and they do work sufficiently,” Wilcox said. “It’s better than nothing. She’s telling me no one is being picky right now, make them.”
Cornerstone Hospice, which operates facilities in seven Florida counties and one in Georgia, put out an email call Tuesday to its volunteers asking for mask-makers.
“Within about an hour, we got over 50 volunteers saying they could make masks for us,” said volunteer services manager Diane Anderson. “It was a huge response, just an amazing feeling to think that many people wanted to help that quickly.”
Thursdays have been designated as a dropoff day, with three volunteers making delivery to The Villages locale.
“We hope these masks offer some peace of mind,” Anderson said.
Barb Matson was inspired to make face masks after watching the news. Matson, of the Village of Hadley, knew right away she could make them without a hitch.
“With being home and idle hands, I thought this would be a good idea,” Matson said. “They’re so easy to make and if they help others, that’s even better.”
Templates are available online for how to make the masks. Matson saw her template on the Deaconess Health System website and Jo-Ann Fabrics, which has been giving mask kits to the public, has an instructional video online detailing the process.
Matson had four friends at her house Tuesday helping her make masks. Along with masks to donate, they have close to 20 orders for masks from friends.
Jeanne Eckstein, of the Village of Dunedin, cut the fabric to the required dimensions. Rather than measuring each rectangle, Eckstein used a piece of heavy duty paper as a stencil.
Eckstein was glad to be of help in any way and said cutting out the masks felt better than sitting at home and worrying.
“I don’t have any sort of crafty skill,” Eckstein said. “I can sew, but that’s about it.”
The two were part of an assembly line that also included Ruthie Solimini (Village of Hadley), Debby Murray (Village of Summerhill) and Denise Livesey (Village of Collier). They spread themselves throughout Matson’s house so they could keep their distance.
“I don’t sew too much, but when I do it’s usually a special project,” Murray said. “This is definitely a special project to me.”
Shirley Fiorentino, of the Village of Winifred, started sewing masks after receiving a voicemail Sunday from a representative at Premier Medical Associates.
“They got my name out of the newspaper,” said Fiorentino, former president of The Sewing Club. “They just asked if I’d be interested in making them. They didn’t give me a number — just keep making them. They’re not desperate, but they wanted to get a jump on things before they got there.”
Fiorentino said she had made two dozen masks in the first 48 hours, with the help of husband Joe and friend Rosemary Walters, of the Village of Polo Ridge.
Vivian Murray, of Water Oak Country Club in Lady Lake, dropped off her first set of sewn masks on Wednesday. She brought her first dozen masks to Village Veranda senior living community.
“They were really excited; they enjoyed how colorful and fun the patterns were,” she said. “It seemed to brighten their day a lot.”
One common hurdle being encountered by all mask-makers: A nationwide shortage of elastic.
A casual check of the Jo-Ann store on U.S. Highway 441 showed no elastic available at less than three-fourths of an inch wide.
“I’ve been to two Walmarts, I’ve been to Jo-Ann’s. Right now you cannot find elastic anywhere,” said Wilcox.
Sue Bonzey, of the Village of Hadley, managed to sew about 60 masks within a week and figures she can produce 40 more before she runs out of elastic. She has collected extra pieces of elastic from fellow members of the Big Cypress chapter of the Quilting Guild.
Bonzey started making them after her daughter-in-law, a doctor in Sacramento, California, asked for some homemade masks.
“(California) is on total shutdown but she’s still going in to work to help people,” she said. “It’s nice to know that the masks are bringing some brightness.”
Staff writers Dayna Straehley and Maddie Cutler contributed to this report. Senior Writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or firstname.lastname@example.org.