New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell signs for a shipment of masks from Joseph Abboud Manufacturing. Standing behind him is Joe Bahena, senior vice president at Joseph Abboud.

As part of its efforts to reduce COVID-19 risks, New Bedford has worked with local nonprofits, volunteers and a well-known clothing manufacturer to hand out more than 94,000 free face masks to residents since this spring through the MaskNB initiative.

New Bedford has become a mask-advocacy pioneer by promising free masks to every resident who wanted one. In a series of drive-through, walk-up and pop-up events, the city has handed out cloth masks made by Joseph Abboud Manufacturing, which is headquartered in New Bedford.

Mayor Jon Mitchell said MaskNB helps to protect city residents, a large number of whom are older, have medical conditions, or work in manufacturing and food processing plants. The city also has a 21% poverty rate.

“The mask program is an example of how we’ve tried to tailor our solutions to the specific characteristics of the disease experience here,” Mitchell said. “We’re different from other metro areas, like Boston or New York. We have a different economy, we have different demographics.”

Joseph Abboud shut down its suit manufacturing in March and pivoted to making and providing masks at cost, said Joe Bahena, the company’s senior vice president. He said more than 100 employees returned to make the masks.

By April, the city had started giving Abboud-made masks to first responders, frontline workers and vulnerable populations, including nursing-home and senior-housing residents. The city asked the company to ramp up its production of reusable masks for residents, and Mitchell announced the launch of MaskNB on May 14.

“We looked at the data, and understood that mask wearing was going to become an important thing,” Mitchell said. “We just put two and two together and said, ‘Let’s take advantage of what our friends at Abboud can offer, and let’s see if we can do this.’”

Beginning in late May, the city started holding weekend drive-through mask events in school parking lots, and, later, walk-up events at city parks.

“We were delivering them, we were mailing them,” said Brian Nobrega, the city’s emergency management director, who oversees MaskNB. “It was something that started small that turned into something really big. I get phone calls and emails every day saying, ‘Hey, can we get some?’”

City workers and volunteers gave masks to voters during the September primary election, and the city has been handing out masks during census-registration efforts. Recipients get a paper bag containing two masks and a flyer with information about social distancing and proper hygiene, plus helpful phone numbers.

The masks cost the city $2.50 each. Nobrega said the masks are washable and last for up to a month. Residents can get replacements when needed.

In a bit of municipal branding, the masks bear the initials “NB,” which have turned the masks into a status symbol and point of civic pride, Mitchell and Nobrega said.

Volunteers from the Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter of the American Red Cross have helped to distribute masks. The city has also received help from the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center.

City officials estimate that the mask initiative will cost $300,000, though Nobrega said the city will potentially receive up to a 75% reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and can also rely on Coronavirus Relief Funding through the federal CARES Act.

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