Masking up: Tens of thousands of face coverings distributed

Systems in place appear to be working well

by Mark Reaman

Tens of thousands of masks have been distributed throughout the valley since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis last March. Gunnison County, the town of Crested Butte and the city of Gunnison have all purchased disposable and reusable masks in an effort to get people to wear face coverings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Gunnison County COVID-19 logistics chief Kyle Tibbett said that as of last week, the county had ordered 31,750 procedure masks and has distributed 44,151 procedure masks. “We have distributed more than we have ordered and this is because some of these distributed masks came from the Strategic National Stockpile we received at the beginning of the incident,” he explained. “Close to 50 percent of masks distributed have gone to businesses, and the other 50 percent have gone to Gunnison Valley Health, emergency medical services and law enforcement. We have also distributed close to 1,500 cloth masks. Gunnison County also makes an effort to hold a month’s worth of masks for GVH, in the event their typical supply chains run out.”

Tibbett said about $16,805 from various funding sources has been spent by Gunnison County on procedure masks alone, with an additional $5,000 spent on reusable cloth masks.

Government officials believe having masks at everyone’s fingertips is helping to keep local business as healthy as possible in a pandemic.

“By making the masks readily available it removes one more barrier to mask wearing,” said Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald. “If a box of masks is front and center when a visitor walks into a store, they get the message pretty quickly. We are taking this pandemic seriously, keeping our schools and businesses open is a priority for this community and in order to do that we need to limit the spread of the virus and we are committed to mask use in order to help accomplish that goal.”

Gunnison County public information officer Andrew Sandstrom said the county has conducted mask compliance studies and it appears both ends of the valley have a pretty good use rate, with approximately 90 percent of people wearing them where it is mandated.

The city of Gunnison has purchased 8,000 masks for local businesses and has gone through about 5,600 masks since June. The city has spent $4,568 on masks for distribution, which is being covered by the CARES Act money.

“Over the last month, we have experienced a decrease in requests, but that is most likely because businesses are providing masks to customers themselves or more people have their own mask or face covering to wear,” explained Gunnison city clerk Erica Boucher. “Employees of different businesses can stop by and pick up a box of masks, if needed, or a clerk can deliver a box of masks to a business. Any city business that requests masks is provided a box of 50 to 100 disposable masks. Businesses may make multiple requests.”

The Crested Butte-Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce has been the primary distribution point in the north end of the valley. Masks are distributed to individual visitors as well as to businesses that request them to hand out to customers who visit their stores. Chamber executive director Stephanie Sandstrom said the Visitors Center reopened at the end of May and has given out a lot of masks. “We have handed out roughly 10,000 masks as of Labor Day Weekend. The masks have been supplied to the chamber for distribution by the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County,” she said.

The chamber hands out disposable masks for free, while reusable masks are available at the Visitor Center for a suggested $5 donation.

Sandstrom said they encourage reusable mask purchases at local businesses, most of which stock various designs and styles. ”The disposable masks are preferable to distribute to a visitor who may deem purchasing a mask unnecessary or out of their interests. The disposable masks have also been useful for those who are ill-prepared and forget the latest accessory as they dash out the door,” she said.

MacDonald said working with the chamber of commerce to get masks distributed has been very efficient. “The chamber has been a wonderful partner in this effort,” she said. “Stephanie and the staff at the chamber have really stepped up and taken the lead on distribution. Through their leadership there has been a seamless and steady supply of disposable masks for visitors and for businesses to distribute to visitors.”

MacDonald said local governments have agreed to pay for the masks through a portion of the CARES Act funds distributed to Gunnison County. The town of Crested Butte has ordered and thus far helped distribute about 25,000 masks.

Tibbett agrees that the chambers of commerce in both Crested Butte and Gunnison “have been extremely helpful and we can’t emphasize that enough.

“It is also important to note that we have distributed cloth masks [multi-use, non-disposable] to both chambers and various lodging businesses throughout the valley,” Tibbett continued. “Lodging properties in the valley have been great about distributing cloth masks to guests, and the chambers were also incredibly helpful in this endeavor.”

Gunnison Country Chamber of Commerce director Celeste Helminski noted that as the COVID-19 crisis has gone on, more people are diligent about wearing face coverings. “We are finding now that most everyone who stops by the Visitor Center comes in wearing masks so having some on hand to pass out is not as needed as they were in May and June,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of those folks walking into the Visitors Center are wearing a mask.”

Helminski said the Visitors Center has both disposable and cloth masks on-hand. If people choose to take a cloth mask, the chamber asks for a donation to help pay for them; Helminski said those donation dollars have gone back into the county.

“Visitors were very happy to have this option of picking up a cloth mask and some were very happy to make a donation,” Helminski said. “The cloth masks early on went to both businesses and visitors and now we are finding the cloths masks are only going to visitors.”

Gunnison city manager Russ Forest pointed out that as mask wearing has become more normal, there is less of a need to distribute them. “Most guests and residents now have masks and we are distributing fewer of them,” he said. “When wearing masks became a requirement in the Public Health Orders, the city reached out through the chamber of commerce to provide masks to businesses. The city reached out directly to Safeway, City Market and Walmart to ensure they had masks and to request they ask customers to wear masks before entering. We believe this was helpful in terms of improving compliance with mask wearing. We also gave our police officers Gunny Bucks to say thank you for wearing masks and we put up signage on Highways 50 and 135 to communicate with guests coming into the valley. The state order on masks helped clarify expectations and compliance for the state as a whole.”

One ramification of the disposable masks is that they sometimes get discarded inappropriately and often will be seen blowing around on the ground. MacDonald said while that is unfortunate, the fact is we are dealing with a pandemic.

“The use of disposable products, including masks, is an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic. Restaurants have had to shift to using more disposable products. While this is counter to the town’s climate action goals, we recognize it is a necessary, but hopefully temporary, measure,” MacDonald said. “However, it continues to become easier to find face coverings in all shapes, sizes, patterns and designs and hopefully most people are finding their way to reusable masks that fit comfortably and can be washed and reused.”

As for the upcoming fall and winter seasons, the same distribution effort will be made. “We hope to continue to make masks available to anyone who needs one for as long as they are recommended or required. The town of Crested Butte is planning to have the mandatory mask requirement in place on Elk Avenue for the foreseeable future,” said MacDonald.

Tibbett said planning for the future is proceeding apace. “We are currently working with all municipalities in Gunnison County [Crested Butte, Mt. Crested Butte, Pitkin, Gunnison and Marble] to place a large mask order that should cover us through December,” he said.

“It’s great to see the commitment to stopping the spread of the virus in Gunnison County,” concluded MacDonald. ”Face coverings are an important component of this effort and it is heartening to see such great compliance in our community.”

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