City leaders announced a Mask the City campaign on Tuesday with the goal of providing a face mask for every resident of the city, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manufacturer Renfro Corp. is making the masks, which were designed by a team led by Dr. William M. Satterwhite III, the chief wellness officer at Wake Forest Baptist Health.
Renfro is reserving the first 300,000 masks for use in Winston-Salem, where businesses, nonprofits and the city have committed to buying large numbers of the masks for distribution to employees and in some cases to employee families and others.
Speaking during a noon press conference, Mayor Allen Joines said there will be a free distribution of 60,000 masks to low-income residents through churches and nonprofits.
Joines said the first 25,000 masks have already arrived and have been distributed.
By Friday, the masks will be available for purchase at most Lowes Foods locations around the county. The price will be $2.50 per mask.
Officials say the masks won't eliminate the need to practice social distancing or the other measures meant to keep people from catching or passing on the coronavirus.
But the distribution does come at a time when local officials here and elsewhere are making noises about ending some of the restrictions that have kept many stores closed and prevented people from going to religious services.
"As we hope to begin incrementally relaxing some of the restrictions on our community, this will help," Joines said.
A broad cross-section of community leaders, including those from Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health, joined Joines during the news conference.
The leaders said they want residents to wear the masks and continue social distancing for 40 days, from April 22 through May 31.
Stan Jewell, the president of Mount Airy-based Renfro, said that the closure of retail businesses during the pandemic has left the company with unused plant capacity that has allowed a conversion from making socks to making masks.
"We have truly pivoted as a company and will soon have the capacity to produce one million masks per week," Jewell said.
The masks are not the medical-grade N95 or surgical masks, which are not recommended for the general public. Rather, the masks are suitable for people to wear in places like a grocery store or pharmacy where the usual social-distancing requirements are harder to follow.
Satterwhite, who modeled one of the masks during the news conference, said it is designed to stop the wearer from spreading the virus to other nearby people.
Without a mask, he said, "if someone is breathing out, the current from that will carry several feet away — a cough or sneeze can go 15 feet."
Renfro calls the mask the Nightingale WS Protective Mask. Satterwhite demonstrated how the mask is constructed to fit closely to the side of the face, but has an enlarged area around the nose and chin to create a larger "breathing pocket" for the wearer.
The mask is washable for reuse.
Satterwhite said work on the mask design began only 29 days ago.
"Within five days, we had our first prototype," he said. "Within 10 days, we connected with Renfro. It is a stunning accomplishment in just 29 days."
Joines noted that more than 2,000 local citizens have made some 27,000 masks through Project Mask WS.
"The fact is we can use every mask that we can get our hands on, and I urge everyone to continue making masks," Joines said. "The need is enormous."
Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, the chief executive of Wake Forest Baptist, and Jeff Lindsay, the chief operating officer of Novant Health, took part in the news conference to lend their support to the effort. Freischlag noted that Satterwhite's team is based in the Bailey Power Plant where Renfro has offices in the same building.
Lindsay said the measures local officials are taking on coronavirus are working, and cautioned against reducing the measures too soon for fear of hampering progress at limiting the disease.
The Greater Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce and the Winston-Salem Alliance are asking members to buy masks under the program.
Many local businesses have already contributed, officials said.