Behind the front lines, props to Baltimore’s arabbers, among others, for distributing face masks to ward off the virus | COMMENTARY

As the coronavirus spread in April and May, Baltimore arabbers were given face masks to distribute on their produce-vending routes in the city.
As the coronavirus spread in April and May, Baltimore arabbers were given face masks to distribute on their produce-vending routes in the city. (M. Holden Warren)

It must be owing to his immutable belief in the possible that Steven Rivelis watched police officers pull a man off a Philadelphia bus for not wearing a mask and concluded that the problem was not the contrariness of the man but a shortage of masks.

That’s so Rivelis, believer and idealist. He and his wife, Linda Brown Rivelis, built a successful business, Campaign Consultation, on the premise that anything anywhere is possible if you have good research, wise strategy and a robust ground game. The couple also believed in the possibility of restoring a fine restaurant in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon; sadly, The Elephant only lasted three years, but the effort was grand as a golden chandelier.


So it was no surprise to hear, once the coronavirus hit the U.S. and Maryland, that Steven Rivelis had started a campaign to get face masks to people who did not have them. He’s not much for sitting on sidelines.

The Philadelphia incident occurred back in April, the early stages of the pandemic. Police removed a man from a public bus for not wearing a mask, though the Philadelphia transit authority did not have a hard rule about them at the time. (Masks were subsequently required on all buses.)


In Baltimore, Rivelis watched the viral video of the Philadelphia fracas and decided what people like the bus rider needed — what the country needed — were masks. A lot more masks. David Chavis, a longtime colleague similarly experienced in consulting for social change (he is president of Gaithersburg-based Community Science) came to the same conclusion. “We had a simultaneous epiphany,” Rivelis says.

So the two men decided to get something started in Baltimore.

April was eight months ago, but it seems like eight years ago, and it’s easy to forget all that happened and when. For the record, it was on April 3 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people wear face coverings “in public settings when around people outside their household, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

Obviously, by now, the record shows that, throughout the country, there was not enough mask wearing, not enough social distancing and not enough leadership at the top to set an early and firm approach to the worst public health crisis in a century. More should have been done and could have been done back in the winter and spring. That the U.S. failed to control the virus — and that the virus exacted such a heavy toll from one of the world’s most advanced nations — will stand through history as evidence of the chaotic political climate of the Trump era.

The first case of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. was reported on Jan. 20. Three weeks later, President Donald Trump said the virus would “go away” by April. In April, he said the virus was “going to go, going to leave, going to be gone.”

But that was magical thinking.

As infections, hospitalizations and deaths started to mount, we had daily reports of inadequate personal protective equipment, including the most effective face masks, for front-line health workers.

Rivelis and Chavis, thinking about the bus rider in Philadelphia, decided to address supply and access “on the ground,” among the poor or homeless, people who might in some way be more vulnerable than most Baltimoreans. “We wanted to reach deep in the more disenfranchised communities that find $5 for a mask not a possible choice over food and shelter,” Chavis says.

So he and Rivelis set out to raise money for masks and identify where they were needed through organizations that worked with vulnerable populations.

They called their campaign Masks4Masses and established a GoFundMe site and a Facebook page and raised about $6,000. That doesn’t sound like much, but it went a long way.

Rivelis and Chavis have distributed more than 15,000 masks. They channeled them through the Sex Workers Outreach Project, Health Care for the Homeless, the Franciscan Center and the University of Maryland School of Social Work. They gave masks to mass transit advocates for distribution at bus stops. They gave masks to Earl Johnson, president of the Oliver Community Association; he was already working on raising awareness of the coronavirus threat among his East Baltimore neighbors. Masks went to public housing residents. Rivelis and Chavis also gave masks to Baltimore arabbers to hand out from their horse-drawn produce wagons while on vending routes.

As we close out 2020, it’s worth remembering how people behind the front lines stepped up to fill in the gaps in the supply chain. Mount Royal Soap Co., for instance, started making and bottling hand sanitizer. So did some makers of spirits — McClintock Distillers in Frederick, to name one. Churches, nonprofits and grassroots organizations such as We-Our-Us and Freedom Advocates Celebrating Ex-Offenders collected or made food to distribute to people who lost jobs in the COVID-19 recession.


Rivelis and Chavis spread the word about Masks4Masses and made contacts to purchase masks at a good price. Margaret Clark of Clark’s Ace Hardware in Ellicott City was a big help with that.

And Rivelis and Chavis just received a donation of another 30,000 masks. They’re looking for more organizations in Maryland to take them in bulk and get them where they’re needed this winter while we wait for vaccinations.

They can be contacted through the Masks4Masses GoFundMe site, or drop me a line and I’ll get you in touch.

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