A new program from Mayor Levar Stoney’s office is helping ensure that Richmonders have access to masks protecting us all from the spread of COVID-19. Masks are now available for free at many locations around the city.
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country and governors issue statewide face-covering mandates, Mayor Stoney’s office and the City of Richmond have been working to make those face coverings accessible to everyone in the river city.
In a press conference last Friday, Mayor Stoney announced the city’s plan to distribute free disposable surgical masks to Richmond residents at 42 pickup locations around the city.
“Wearing a mask is the easiest way to show love and respect for your neighbor,” said Mayor Stoney during the press conference. “Masks are scientifically proven to help stop the spread, so we’re making sure everyone has access to them, regardless of the money in their pocket or zip code they live in.”
The mask distribution network has been months in the making. It originated from a pilot program in the spring between the Mayor’s office, the Richmond Fire Department, and the state government.
“As soon as the pandemic became a problem in mid-March, Mayor Stoney acknowledged that the accessibility of PPE would be utmost priority,” said Sam Schwartzkopf, a spokesperson for the office of Mayor Stoney’s press secretary. “Because even though it took a while for CARES Act dollars to start rolling in, the need was immediately there.”
In the pilot program, the state provided 40,000 masks, hand sanitizer bottles, and health literacy pamphlets; the city used socio-economic data to identify the city’s most underserved and at-risk communities; and the Fire Department delivered the masks, sanitizer bottles, and pamphlets to those neighborhoods.
The city’s current mask distribution network has been a collective effort by several Richmond public offices, including Parks and Recreation, Richmond Public Library, and RVA 311.
“It truly was a collaborative effort,” Schwartzkopf said. “[The Press Secretary’s Office] created the RVA Strong page. We made sure through working with the Office of Multicultural Affairs that the information was available on an all-Spanish page as well. We worked with the Department of Information Technology to make sure that there would be an interactive map.”
The pickup locations include Richmond City public buildings including Richmond City Health District Resource Centers, Richmond Public Schools meal distribution sites, Parks and Recreation Community Centers, and Richmond Public Library branches. Residents may come to these locations and pick up two masks per member of their household for no charge. Residents can visit rvastrong.org to determine their nearest pickup location, or apply to become a pickup location as an institution. Before going to a pickup site for masks, residents are strongly encouraged to call ahead to make sure they have masks in stock.
“It’s not required that you call ahead, you don’t need to set a pickup time, you don’t need to reserve an appointment or a slot or anything like that,” Schwartzkopf said. “We [just] don’t want you to go on a long walk and at the end of the walk hear, ‘We just gave out out last mask an hour ago, sorry.’”
Institutions and organizations can also get a delivery from the Fire Department of a bulk package of masks for free.
“The city would rather be in the position of ensuring that everyone is celebrating, gathering, worshipping, receiving services, etc. safely, rather than not having provided those masks and risking more Richmonders getting sick,” Schwartzkopf said.
RVA 311, Richmond’s information and public service hotline, had a hand in expanding the pickup network, and actually came to the mayor’s office with the idea to create the institutional request, where organizations can order between 50 and 300 masks.
“They said, ‘We want to collaborate across departments to make this a reality and to use RVA 311 as a tool to make sure everyone has access to a mask,’” Schwartzkopf said.
The mask network had small beginnings but has since grown into a true city-wide effort that is poised to continue growing.
“We started with just the Fire Department headquarters and City Hall,” Schwartzkopf said. “And we worked together across those three departments — Fire, RVA 311 and the mayor’s office — to recruit almost 50 locations throughout the city for the launch.”
The cost of the 180 thousand masks purchased by the city ahead of last Friday’s launch was reimbursed by federal funds from the CARES Act, and whether or not there will be another federal relief bill in September, the city is committed to providing free masks to Richmonders for as long as COVID-19 is still a threat.
“We are going to keep purchasing masks as long as there’s a need for them,” Schwartzkopf said. “As long as the residents of Richmond need them to feel safe.”