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Healthy air for all: California volunteers supply more face masks than the SF government

Healthy air for all: California volunteers supply more face masks than the SF government
[Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images]

Within a few days, face masks went from a weird-looking accoutrement to everyday fashion in northern California, as massive wildfires continue to poison the air. The highpoint of pollution seems to have passed. But on Monday night, air still reeked of smoke, with a quality score in the “Unhealthy” range of 150-200. “Good” air quality is 50 or lower.

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So northern Californians who venture outside still need a steady supply of the disposable masks, and volunteer groups are helping those who can’t spring for masks or can’t find stores that stock them. In San Francisco, the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter has distributed about 4,000 masks so far, says co-chair Shanti Singh, with another three thousand ready if needed.

The City of San Francisco, in comparison, has distributed about 1,600 masks to the “unsheltered population”–homeless residents unable to get inside. It’s also suppling masks to city employees who have to work outside, such as police and fire fighters. But there’s no walkup service for the general public.

All efforts pale compared to the East Bay volunteer group Mask Oakland. By Monday afternoon, it had distributed about 48,000 masks, says spokeswoman Akilah Monifa; and an additional 50,000 had just arrived from southern California. While most masks have gone to locals, 10,000 of the latest batch will be split between the inland cities of Modesto and Chico, the latter on the frontline of the massive Camp Fire. Donations through Venmo fund the entire effort. “Most of them are two- and three-dollar donations,” says Monifa.

Mask Oakland, founded by J. Redwoods and Cassandra Williams, first came together during the 2017 Northern California wildfires. It sprung up again this year to address the needs of even bigger fires.

With rains forecast for this week, volunteers are hoping their work is almost done–for this fire season.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the usable lifetime of an N95 mask and the founding circumstances of the group Mask Oakland.

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