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Jun. 6, 2020 | Saturday
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COVID-19: NOTL 'mask trees' raise $3,000 for shelters in Niagara
Virgil couple Fred and Sonia Johnson stop to buy a mask on Four Mile Creek Road. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now/The Lake Report)

A community initiative to provide Niagara-on-the-Lake with masks has taken root in town.

A group of volunteers called Niagara Covid Masks has set up “mask trees” around Niagara-on-the-Lake and anyone is welcome to take a mask in return for a donation toward shelters in Niagara Region.

The "trees," which are mostly metal stands, have plastic bags with homemade masks inside.

Julia Buxton-Cox, a NOTL resident who has been involved in making masks and helped with the mask tree project, says the masks are going fast. So far the group has sold about 350, raising about $3,000 for three homeless shelters.

“My tree was empty I think two o'clock or three o'clock yesterday afternoon, and I have nothing to put on the tree today,” she said Tuesday.

“The trees will be full again hopefully by the end of the week.”

Buxton-Cox said 100 per cent of the money is going to shelters.

“We've chosen South Ridge shelter, which is an adult shelter in St. Catharines, We've chosen the R.A.F.T. shelter, which is a youth shelter in St. Catharines, and we've chosen Nightlight, which is a youth shelter in a youth hostel in Niagara Falls.”

She said the group chose non-local places because that’s where the need is greatest.

“The shelters have been really, really hard hit with COVID and they're in desperate need,” Buxton-Cox said.

“We could have chosen Red Roof, and we could have chosen something locally, but Stephanie Bjorgan (the executive director of Red Roof) put out a video recently from Red Roof that just said, like, ‘We're not asking for money right now, like we're closed, you know, deal with the people who are dealing with COVID that's really where the money needs to go.’ ” 

Virgil couple Fred and Sonia Johnson stopped by the mask tree on Four Mile Creek Road on Saturday. They said they hadn’t heard about the campaign and only noticed it when driving by.

Sonia said it was perfect, as she’s been looking for masks but didn’t know where to get them.

“Absolutely excellent, because you can’t buy them anywhere else,” she said.

“We couldn’t get them at any pharmacy,” Fred said. “They just don’t have them.”

Buxton-Cox said there have been “a lot of naysayers” who have said masks aren’t effective or that the mask trees are unsafe.

However, Niagara Region Public Health said it fully supports the project.

“We strongly support the initiative to help out the homeless. It is important at this difficult time that we are supporting each other, particularly those more vulnerable or in greatest need,” public health communications consultant Kerri Stoakley said in an email response to questions from The Lake Report.

She said the mask trees are low-risk as far as being a source of spread for COVID-19.

“As it appears the face coverings are individually wrapped in plastic bags, there is little risk to these being contaminated from the environment or by someone with COVID-19 taking a face covering from the tree,” Stoakley said.

“As with handling any object, public health continues to advise that everyone should wash/sanitize hands after taking down and opening one of the face covering bags and again after disposing of the bag.”

She said it’s important to remember masks are not a substitute for social distancing.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada has advised that face coverings are an option for people who would like take an extra step to protect those around them from infection,” said Stoakley.

“It’s important to remember that a face covering mostly protects others, but not oneself. As well, the Public Health Agency of Canada advises to limit times wearing face coverings to when one will be in crowded locations where physical distancing is not possible — face coverings are not a substitute for physical distancing and hand hygiene at other times, and can themselves be a source of infection if someone inadvertently contaminates them by touching or close contact with an infected person.”

Buxton-Cox said the masks will be available “as long as (the) sewists are willing to sew.”

Anyone who wishes to get involved can contact her through Facebook on the NOTL Today page, though she is encouraging people to sew their own masks for friends and family if they can.

“If you've got fabric, we're willing to distribute patterns for people to sew if they want to make their own at home.”

* With files from Jessica Maxwell

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