At 67, having survived heart surgery, Nandi Muhammad takes few risks with her health.

In her North Philadelphia neighborhood, though, “I’m still seeing a lot of people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s that are not wearing masks,” she said. She decided to take a charitable view: “Maybe they don’t know where to go. Maybe they can’t afford to buy one.”

So she pulled out her sewing machine and got to work. Now, when she encounters a person without a mask, she presents one as a gift. Those who know Miss Nandi know better than to resist. “I don’t give them a lot of options," she said.

The same debate has been playing out all over Philadelphia and beyond, ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its position this month, conceding that, to fight the coronavirus pandemic, we must become a nation of mask-wearers. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all workers and customers in essential businesses to don masks; New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy instituted similar rules days earlier.

But this pivot has not come easily.

"Miss Nandi" Nandi Muhammad has been sewing masks and giving them to anyone who she sees not wearing one. Friday April 17, 2020
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
"Miss Nandi" Nandi Muhammad has been sewing masks and giving them to anyone who she sees not wearing one. Friday April 17, 2020

Many people hate the feel of masks on their faces, the way they muffle their voices and fog up their glasses. Some black men have argued masks pose their own dangers, particularly in settings where they are already discriminated against and viewed with distrust. Others simply disagree that masks are necessary, or question the efficacy of homemade coverings. An unmasked man was dragged off a SEPTA train, as the transit agency fumbled the rollout of its policy. A New Jersey man became the first to be arrested for failing to wear a mask at Wawa.

On one level, it seems as if masks are everywhere: Free ones are left in baggies on front steps, and strung from fences in Fishtown. And mask sales are pulling small fashion labels and seamstresses back from the brink, like North Philadelphia upstart PAUL PERC, which has been taking custom orders in wild prints and even sequins. Starbucks Facebook groups are filled with photos of baristas wearing masks they sewed from old aprons, discussing what type of coffee filter could be adapted in a pinch.

Even so, these represent a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of masks that will be needed — at a time when supply-chain challenges have made access uneven.

Nicole Jochym, a medical student who helped start Sew Face Masks Philadelphia a month ago, has watched the government response with frustration, her foot bearing down on the pedal of her sewing machine the whole time.

She has marshaled a volunteer sewing army to meet the need, masking thousands of nurses and doctors, GoPuff delivery drivers, community organizers, and homeless people.

CoverAidPHL — a coalition of professional designers and manufacturers — has been ramping up production at an even larger scale, turning out thousands of masks each week. Bayada, the home-health provider, ordered 20,000 of them. And, with Wolf’s order that businesses must equip employees, organizer Evan Malone expects a flood of new bulk requests.

But even as factories rush their production, not everyone relishes being smothered by a thick layer of fabric.

Take Tina Dixon Spence, who has turned her children’s clothing business, Buddha Babe, to selling organic cotton masks. As much as she hates to admit it, she can’t stand wearing her own product.

“I was refused entry at Fresh Market in Chestnut Hill yesterday! Luckily I had one in my car," she said. “I am a mouth-breather exclusively, and I wear glasses, so it’s very hard for me to breathe and see when I wear them. I do feel like I get judging glares when I’m out without it — at the post office, gas station, whatever. But then I see people driving alone with them on and I’m like, ‘Why?’ ”

Jana Moore, a resident of Southwest Center City, recently posted in her neighborhood Facebook group, wondering why she still encounters so many neighbors venturing out unmasked. Some people told her they were making their own calls about whether a mask is really necessary on public streets.

For Moore, those calculations don’t fly.

“It would be individual choice if wearing a mask protected you," she said by phone. “But the fact that wearing a mask protects other people puts it in an entirely different realm.”

Tina Dixon Spence used her organic cotton fabric, like this "Big Poppa" pattern, to churn out a line of masks, selling them for $10 apiece. She still hates wearing them.
Courtesy of Buddha Babe
Tina Dixon Spence used her organic cotton fabric, like this "Big Poppa" pattern, to churn out a line of masks, selling them for $10 apiece. She still hates wearing them.

In South Philadelphia, Dena Driscoll was shocked when a group of runners whooshed by her on the sidewalk without any protective gear, leaving her in their slipstream. She was left worrying if her own mask-wearing leaves others feeling at liberty to invade her space — much as drivers may give cyclists less space when they’re wearing bike helmets.

Her kids, in particular, hate wearing masks, and the mixed behavior they see leaves them with questions.

“My kids are like, ‘Why isn’t that person wearing it?’ " she said. She tells them: "‘Look, everyone is making a personal choice. I’m trying to make the right choice for us.’ ”

And, for some, it’s not really a choice. Even though mask access is growing rapidly, it’s still not universal.

John Jackson, who was panhandling with a topical sign (“we stand together, 6 feet apart”), had no way of getting a mask, until he stepped aboard a SEPTA bus this week and the driver started hollering at him.

“He said: ‘Don’t you know you should be wearing a mask? There’s a mask there!’ ” Jackson took it happily from a hook near the door, though it’s disposable, a flimsy layer of protection that won’t last long.

Saleem Cooper of PAUL PERC made a custom sequin mask.
PAUL PERC
Saleem Cooper of PAUL PERC made a custom sequin mask.

Over the last week, homeless-services providers have rushed to catch up to the need.

Project HOME put out a call for 2,000 donated masks for its residents, and within a week received all it had asked for.

The Bethesda Project was also able to supply all its residents with donated cloth masks and instructions on how to hand-wash them — increasingly vital as there have been presumed coronavirus cases in the organization’s largest shelter. (That crossed one problem off an endless list for operations director Liz Anuw. Now, she’s trying to negotiate the purchase of gallons of hand sanitizer, and thousands of disposable thermometers.)

Jose Benitez, who heads the Kensington nonprofit Prevention Point, said masking the 10,000 people he serves is a daunting notion, on top of the ongoing battle to obtain personal protective equipment for his frontline staff.

It’s the right thing to do, he said: Just like needle exchanges and Narcan distribution, it’s a form of harm reduction. Whether he can pay for it is another question: “This is going to sound like a crazy number, but to get enough equipment out for our staff and clients, we’re talking about anywhere between $800,000 and $900,000 for four months."

Making masks for CoverAidPHL
Courtesy of CoverAidPHL
Making masks for CoverAidPHL

In the gaps, social workers like Vanessa Rugys, who works for a large mental-health provider, are sewing madly, sacrificing old sheets to the cause.

She finds the sewing therapeutic. The hard part is when she goes to work, trying to get clients to understand the need to stay home, and mask up if they leave. Some, she said, are "people who have serious brain trauma. And you can kind of repeat all day and they don’t get it, or they’re asking you again.”

Jondhi Harrell recently spent eight days at Jefferson Torresdale Hospital, gasping for breath with COVID-19, and returned home a mask evangelist. On the ride home, he was aghast to see so many people without gloves or masks.

“For so many black people, especially black men, there is such a deep level of distrust for the government, for what the authorities are saying. Maybe that goes all the way back to the Tuskegee Institute," he said. "My message to my community is: This pandemic is real.”

He recently ordered 75 masks from a local seamstress, to make sure his whole extended family is covered. “We’re looking at this as the minimum requirement for safeguarding our lives.”