By the middle of March, an unfamiliar acronym—PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)—had entered into the popular vernacular. Seemingly overnight, selling and wearing masks became ubiquitous in New York. On April 17, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring mask-wearing in public wherever social distancing was impossible. For many, wearing a mask outdoors became an opportunity for creativity and personal expression—whether in the form of levity or as a message of protest.
"A New Normal. Masks Drying Over My Kitchen Sink."
July 13, 2020
Courtesy of the photographer
As the photographer explains, “I now own about 25 masks of all different styles and patterns, including two with images of Muhammad Ali, two with Jim Henson's Muppets, an assortment of flower prints, and even a polka dot one. My masks are set out to dry each evening from hooks set up over my sink in my rent-stabilized apartment in upper Manhattan. I was writing on my computer, which sits in my office/kitchen table just a few feet away when I looked up and decided to record this piece of the ‘new normal’ for posterity.”
May 11, 2020
Courtesy Center for Brooklyn History
The photographer recalls, “This photo was taken in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood in Brooklyn (Kings Highway at 17th Street). In the really early days of quarantine and city shutdown, so many things were scarce because of skyrocketing demand for the same types of products. It was common to hear people complain about their lack of toilet paper and brag about their sourdough starter in the same breath. My neighborhood is filled with small pharmacies and stores like The Nut House that sell great gourmet snacks, coffee, toiletry items, and even locally made baked goods, and those places were the only stores I shopped at for a while! I knew I wouldn’t have to stand in line only to be confronted with bare shelves, and I could get some really great bourekas along with my masks. I got all of my PPE at The Nut House last spring, but never got around to baking any bread...!"
[N95 face mask]
Collection of the Mount Sinai Health System
N95 face masks are a critical piece of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They became the subject of widespread attention especially as shortages endangered healthcare workers during the early months of the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) strongly urged that use of N95s be reserved for healthcare workers.
Akón:wara Tekariho:ken (Mask Between Two Worlds)
Iakowi:he'ne' Oakes (She Gathers/Organizes People), Mohawk/Kanien’kehá:ka (People of the Flint)
Courtesy of the maker
[Face masks used by counselors for the Greenwich House Methadone Maintenance Treatment Program]
January 26, 2020
Courtesy Sally Young, Greenwich House
Greenwich House’s Celeste Kaufman explains, “From the literal angle, the mask represents both the shortage of PPE healthcare workers faced while New York City was the global epicenter of the pandemic and the tradition of handmade fabric masks that everyone needed to make before the cottage industry of selling fabric masks popped up. From a more symbolic angle, the mask represents the spirit of togetherness and mutual aid that immediately arose in the city. People needed to work together to help protect each other and fill in the gaps that we weren't receiving from a state or federal level in our collective response to the pandemic.
“On a small scale, Greenwich House (like every nonprofit organization at all involved with responding to COVID) had to transform ourselves overnight and nearly all of our staff's job descriptions changed to address our most pressing needs.”
[HOT DOG! face mask, People's Choice Award winner at Maskie Awards/Coney Island USA]
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Suzie Sims-Fletcher. 2020.14.1.1.
Every June since 1983, Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, the nation’s largest art parade, has brought out the creativity in New Yorkers, who compete for prizes in thematic categories. But because of the pandemic, this year the organizers staged “NOT the Mermaid Parade” online and a month-long online mask contest, the Maskies. Votes for the award-winning HOT DOG! Face Mask came from all over the world—Bhutan to England, Columbia to Canada.
The artist writes, “As a mask-making maniac (MMM) myself, from the early days in March, I dove into this chance to do something creative. We MMM were ready to thread, and pin, and pink, and sew...but—fabric stores were not ‘essential.’ Donations started coming in the form of cash and care packages—from neighbors in Astoria, AND Boston, Florida, Hawaii, Washington, Texas, Pennsylvania—all over.
“HOT DOG! face mask was built on a standard blue medical mask (donated from China, via New Jersey) and so the cover art is reusable by replacing the disposable undermask. The pink fabric base says, ‘I love you to the moon and back!’ and came from a pharmacist mask maker friend in Texas. Other fabric sections were cut from scrub cap and mask making scraps. Some people see a big smile and a heart; others see America's favorite summertime food—and a Coney Island staple. Oh—and, look carefully. See that one gold tooth—yeah...HOT DOG! face mask is saving for a full grill (get it!? get it?!).
“HOT DOG! face mask is honored to be part of the Museum of the City of New York's collection exemplifying NYC’s tenacity and creativity (if one thing doesn't work, do another), team spirit (selfless PPE making and gifts of supplies), joy in hardship (just look at his face!), and the international community as we supported each other in this whole world wide COVID thing. His name exclaims excitement: ‘You got a challenge? HOT DOG! Let me at it. And, after all, isn’t that what New York is all about?’”
["Enough Is Enough" face mask]
Courtesy Sheila Stainback / CAMBA
BIVO (Brownsville In Violence Out) is an anti-gun violence initiative organized by CAMBA, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit service organization. BIVO created "Enough Is Enough" masks to rally the community to oppose gun violence, but also to promote COVID safety efforts.