5 July 2021

Mask mandate sees local makers inundated amid fears Canberra's homeless will miss out

| Damien Larkins
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Rowena Hobart sewing face mask at Smooth Stitches in Yass

Rowena Hobart from Smooth Stitches in Yass has been inundated with demand since the ACT’s face mask mandate was introduced this week. Photo: Rowena Hobart.

The ACT’s COVID-19 mask mandate has seen a run on locally made face masks, but homeless advocates are concerned at-risk Canberrans could fall through the cracks.

Many Canberrans were caught out when ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced on Sunday, 27 June, that masks would become mandatory just hours later, from midnight on 28 June.

Mask-makers across the ACT region have been overwhelmed by a rush of orders, and many have quickly sold out or are struggling to keep up with demand.

Rowena Hobart, from Smooth Stitches, has made and delivered more than 1500 masks this week from her small manufacturing facility in Yass.

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“It’s gone crazy again,” she said. “[With] the requirement to wear masks, people are needing them. It’s a bit of a juggling mix at the moment trying to get enough stock printed up and to deliver them all.”

Ms Hobart is also wrangling four sons on school holidays – her four-year-old was sick in the car one day while she drove deliveries across Canberra, cutting short 40 drop-offs.

It’s not just the cancellation of markets, where she sells to the public, that’s impacted her sewing and embroidery business.

“The downturn [has affected] a lot of other businesses,” she said. “They’re not getting their uniforms remade, and a lot of the signage that we normally do just isn’t happening.”

Rowena Hobart's 11-year-old son helping to make face masks at Smooth Stitches

Rowena Hobart has roped in her 11-year-old son and office administrative assistant to help meet demand for face masks at her sewing and embroidery business, Smooth Stitches. Photo: Rowena Hobart.

Ms Hobart’s custom-made masks featuring pop culture characters, superheroes and anime are proving popular.

“A lot of people are looking for something that is more fun,” she said. “Masks are terrible to wear, but if we’ve got to wear them we may as well make them fun and enjoy what we’re wearing.”

She expects the increased demand will continue.

“We did quite a few thousand when COVID-19 first started last year and it’s continued throughout,” said Ms Hobart.

“I don’t see it finishing anytime soon, as much as we’d love to.”

Selection of colourful masks from Smooth Stitches in Yass

Rowena Hobart says her colourful masks appeal to people looking to make wearing them a little more fun. Photo: Rowena Hobart.

Gungahlin-based artist Leah Bartsch turned her business, Dressed For Sunday, to face masks when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

She had recently returned to making vintage jewellery, but after the announcement on Sunday she pulled the mask-making tools out again.

Ms Bartsch has been flat-out since and continues to make masks during her interview with Region Media, talking on speaker phone.

“I’m very tired,” she said. “Obviously it has a physical impact.”

Her colourfully designed masks are proving very popular.

“Last year around this time when Melbourne was going into their big lockdown, there was big demand,” said Ms Bartsch.

“Then things quietened down until now, and there’s been a big surge in people wanting them.”

Dressed For Sunday owner Leah Bartsch wearing face mask

Dressed For Sunday’s Leah Bartsch is back making masks again. Photo: Dressed For Sunday.

Working solo in the days since the mask mandate announcement, Ms Bartsch has hand-made at least 120 masks.

At times she’s had to stop taking new orders on her website to catch up with demand.

“For me, it’s really just about making sure people get them in a timely manner,” she said.

“To do that so I’m not completely overwhelmed, I do have to shut down orders at times. Everyone’s been really understanding and responsive to that.”

Floral and animal print face masks from Dressed For Sunday

Leah Bartsch from Dressed For Sunday says she has to sometimes shut down online orders for her popular face masks so she can catch up with demand. Photo: Dressed For Sunday.

Meanwhile, there are fears Canberra’s homeless could be left without masks, putting them at risk of catching COVID-19 or copping the $8000 non-compliance fine.

ACT Shelter has written to the ACT Government asking for an urgent distribution of face masks for homeless Canberrans and people working with them.

The group’s chief executive, Travis Gilbert, said a fine for a homeless person could be devastating.

“An $8000 fine would be beyond their means to pay, and if they default on that fine we know incarceration is a possible worst case scenario,” he said.

Mr Gilbert said ACT Shelter understands the mandate requires homeless people and staff in shelters to be wearing masks at all times.

But because the mandate was made so quickly, he’s not sure if the organisation has stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) available, or the funds to buy more.

“Homelessness services have been sourcing our own PPE since day one because we haven’t been deemed a priority sector,” he said. “A number of our member services have.”

Homeless man sleeping rough

ACT Shelter fears that without face mask supplies, Canberra’s homeless people could be most affected by the mask-wearing mandate. Photo: Supplied.

It’s not just the fines, but the potential public health risks that are concerning.

“They are more visible by virtue of not having a fixed address and therefore being in the public at all times, [but] they do need to enter shops because they also need to eat and buy things,” said Mr Gilbert.

“It would be in everybody’s interests to ensure they can mask up and reduce the likelihood of [getting] COVID-19 and then transmitting it on.”

He wants the ACT Government to distribute face masks to homeless people and those who work with them so they can comply with the mandate.

Original Article published by Damien Larkins on The RiotACT.

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