Francis Wilkinson: New York needs hospital masks, so I decided to make a delivery

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It’s a nice day for a drive. The sky is not the pristine swimming-pool blue that every New Yorker of a certain age recalls from Sept. 11. It’s partly cloudy, like the times. The Thruway is not crowded but it’s far from deserted. A tractor-trailer is weaving erratically in the middle lane. It’s such a modest, manageable, danger: I actually enjoy the command and control of steering around it.

Heading north, I pass beneath a digital sign flashing slogans of survival: “#flattenthecurve.” “Stay at Home.”

I have not stayed. Instead, I’m going to pick up about a dozen masks from my friend Sal and deliver them to my friend David. David is a cardiologist in a major New York City hospital who has been enlisted in the city’s fight against COVID-19. He and his colleagues are expected to risk their lives, daily, with inadequate protection. A short drive upstate is the least I can do. It’s also apparently more than the federal government can do.

This is my second trip upstate for masks. The previous weekend, I met Sal in the mostly deserted parking lot of a train station. He was there when I arrived. I rolled down the passenger window and he plopped a bag of construction masks on the empty seat. We chatted for a minute, bade each other good health and departed. The masks were not made for the disease engulfing New York hospitals. But I presume they are better than nothing. I dropped them on David’s back porch.

The missing masks, like the absent ventilators that President Donald Trump considers someone else’s problem, are an emblem, a freak flag, of the government’s failure to respond to the crisis. On March 20, the president was asked if he would finally invoke the Defense Production Act to rush production of hospital equipment needed to save lives. He said he had, in fact, already done so — “yesterday.” Millions of masks are coming, he said. “They will be here soon.”

It was not true, of course. He didn’t invoke the law until March 27, and then seemingly with an ancillary, or even primary, goal of punishing a single company, GM, which has a female CEO. He subsequently speculated that the reason hospitals have inadequate supplies is that staff are pilfering them. Lies that used to own the libs now kill people instead.

I exit the Thruway and pass a little roadside cantina, someone’s meager living, now closed. I drive past the gun shop where, the weekend before, men were lined up outside, fleeing fear by tempting tragedy. I pass an antique shop, someone else’s livelihood, closed.

I arrive at the train station parking lot a few minutes early so that this time I don’t keep Sal waiting. There are a couple dozen cars scattered across a lot made for hundreds, mimicking the social distance protocol of their owners. Sal pulls up moments later.

The new set of masks came from a brewery. Sal had been out for a walk and decided to visit the friends who own it. They weren’t serving on the premises, but they were filling orders for delivery. Sal and his friends got to talking about the ugly state of things and the shortage of masks came up. Sal said he had delivered construction masks to someone last weekend. His friends noted that someone had just dropped off some masks for them to use. They offered the masks to Sal, who contacted his mask middleman: me.

It might be a nice story if it weren’t a result of the world’s most powerful nation being caught wholly unprepared for a pandemic that had previously visited Asia and Europe and was headed for North America in a hurry. By the end of February, hospitals were already seeking to preserve dwindling supplies of protective equipment — gowns, gloves, shoe covers and eye shields in addition to masks.

I take the masks from Sal and meet his new dog. Corona-conscious, I refrain from petting her even though she and I are both eager for a good ear scratch. I get back in the car, turn around and head home, past more closed businesses and a lot jammed with idle school buses. Another diner seems to have at least a dozen cars in the parking lot. Strange. Perhaps it’s a rebel holdout against the virus, where the patrons adopted the “hoax” mantra early on and just stuck with it, declining to join the grudging accommodation to biology made by the White House and Fox News.

The masks on the seat beside me look a little odd — off-color, long, wide, unwieldy. But I’m no expert. I drop them on David’s porch and hope for the best.

A friend emailed last week that she had been making masks herself until she ran out of elastic. Her daughter is an emergency room physician in another city, as is her son-in-law. Each is issued a single gauze mask to start the day; they have to make it last an entire grueling, traumatic, COVID-19 shift.

She is worried for their lives. I am too. The president, not so much.



Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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