Herrington: Bootleg or DIY masks a sign of Memphis coming together to stay apart

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 04, 2020 9:36 AM CT | Published: April 04, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

First rule of Memphis: Respect the side hustle.

Rebecca Fava already has two jobs.

She and her husband Will live in Downtown Memphis, but Will has a law practice based in Southaven, where Rebecca manages the law office and is also an adjunct history professor at Northwest Mississippi Community College.

Tinkerers unite, turn out face shields by the hundreds

Stuck at home with work slowing down amid the coronavirus pandemic, she decided to take on another gig: making Memphis-themed face masks. 

“I was thinking about things that I missed,” Fava said.

For her that meant the Memphis Grizzlies — the Favas have been season-ticket holders for “six or seven years” and fans for longer. And it meant Max’s Sports Bar in the South Main District, her favorite neighborhood hangout. 

“I like to create things. I’ll make things for me to wear, but I’ve never sold anything that I’ve created,” Fava said. 

She made a dozen masks with Grizzlies, Max’s, Memphis Hustle and more generic Memphis designs and put them on Twitter — she’s @bec901 — on Thursday, and “it just took off.”

Now she’s sold that first dozen and has taken orders for 50 more from online friends and acquaintances that she’ll try to create and get out this weekend. Some have come with different design requests — “901” or an image of the Hernando de Soto Bridge — that she’s trying to meet. 

“I had five people telling me that they wanted masks and now here we are,” she said. “I’m just trying to keep a little positivity amid all this craziness.”

Fava doesn’t make the masks fully from scratch, but rather applies outer-layer designs to pre-made ones, and she stresses that “these are not made to be PPEs.” These are fabric masks for you to wear to the grocery store, not respirator or surgical masks for hospital use. 

These tricked-out masks are a kind of sign-of-the-times update of the bootleg T-shirt cottage industry that sprang up in Memphis nine years ago this spring, when the grit-and-grind Grizz were creeping up on the NBA playoffs for the first time. 

Fava says she has a “closet full” of bootleg Grizzlies shirts.

“I love the (Chris) Vernon Tony Allen one, the ‘All Heart Grit Grind.’ There were some in the (head coach David) Fiz(dale) era that were a lot of fun and a billion during the grit grind (era),” she said. 

And while that boom receded, it has not subsided. 

“I just purchased one that’s a teal T-shirt with a picture of Ja Morant doing his ‘Joggles,’ ” Fava said. “I can’t remember who did it.” 

Fava, like the bootleggers of yore, did not pursue permission: “I looked at the Grizzlies’ embrace (of the T-shirts), that it was good for them too. I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes and certainly don’t want to get in trouble. If I have to shut it down, I have to shut it down.”

Shifting thinking on masks

The public person in Memphis that’s probably been banging the “wear a mask” drum the loudest is my friend and former boss Bruce VanWyngarden, editor of The Memphis Flyer, who called for just this kind of bootleg creativity in his most recent weekly column

The conversation about facial coverings for the general populace is one that has evolved quickly in the days-and-weeks-that-feel-like-months-and-years of our coronavirus lives.

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Initial directives on masks were confusing and contradictory. Widespread use of masks was discouraged by public health organizations and political leaders (including the U.S. Surgeon General), but this seemed less based on utility than scarcity, a way to discourage hoarding.

Telling people masks wouldn’t do that much while at the same time stressing that they needed to be saved for medical professionals, caregivers and the known sick didn’t fully follow. 

This week, public health officials and politicians have been shifting on this subject. 

City of Memphis releases mask wearing guidelines

Late Friday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control updated its recommendation, now suggesting all Americans wear masks of some kind in public.

In Memphis, the messaging has changed in small but meaningful ways over the past few days. Consider these two public messages from Mayor Jim Strickland:

From Sunday, March 29:

“At present there is no clear, strong evidence for the general public to wear a mask, however, given widespread transmission of COVID-19, the general public may consider using a mask (when available) or a facial covering.”

From Friday, April 3:

“If you’re feeling well and you need to go to the grocery, get takeout at a restaurant or take a walk in your neighborhood, stay at least six feet from others and please wear a mask or a scarf. But to be clear, even if you are wearing a scarf (or a mask), stay six feet away from others.” 

If you explore the smart recent writing on this subject, you’ll still find plenty of disagreement, but some growing commonality:

More effective medical-grade masks should still be saved for those who need them most, at least until supply catches up with growing demand. 

But fabric masks — whether fashioned at home with T-shirts, rigged with two rubber bands and a bandana, or the kind crafted by Fava and no doubt many others like her — almost certainly help in an effort that’s about flattening curves and slowing spreads. Masks should not be viewed as a substitute for hand-washing and social distancing, which, along with extensive testing and tracing, remain our best current defenses against spread.

These masks are probably most effective in the kind of closed public spaces best avoided but which are hard to fully avoid — such as grocery stores — and are ultimately most effective not in protecting the wearer from being infected (though it likely helps there, too) but in lowering the chances that the wearer will infect others. (Austria recently made it a requirement to wear masks in grocery stores.)

If you know you have COVID or are showing symptoms, you shouldn’t be going out at all. But even if you’re asymptomatic, you can still have it. You can still be a carrier. You can still spread it. The governor of Georgia might have claimed that this is new information, but it is not. 

There’s lots of deeper reading out there, from The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times. I recommend this piece from Wired, which points out that mask use was widespread and widely encouraged during the 1918 flu epidemic and which poses and answers “Yes” to three key questions: “Do masks work? Should everyone wear them? And if there aren’t enough medical-grade masks for the general public, is it possible to make a viable substitute at home?” 

Sign of the times

Another function of masks, more social and psychological than medical: As a symbol.

As a way to reduce the public stigma of mask use. A way to signal that you care about not only protecting yourself but others in your community. A way to say “we’re in this together.”

As masks become more common and perhaps part of our transition back into a new normal after the biggest wave of infections subside, home-crafted masks like Fava’s are not going to be your everyday answer. She’s selling hers for $20, up from $15 after she figured she was actually losing money on the deal. 

But neither will your cheaper T-shirt or bandana or grab-a-scarf variations. But growing evidence suggests that they will all help until we can do better. 

The bootleg T-shirts, “growl towels” and other sartorial signatures that inspired Fava’s masks were symbols of a city coming together. Her masks, and other homemade endeavors like them, are perhaps fitting symbols of a city now coming together by staying apart.

Fava’s masks were a hit on Twitter, but how has she been received wearing them out in the world? 

She doesn’t know yet.

“I haven’t been anywhere,” she said. 

That’s the right answer.

But at some point some of us have to get out. Covering our face, in whatever way we can, can help the cause. 


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