A Presbyterian Hospital security guard on July 29 stopped members of MaskBlocABQ from handing out free masks outside the hospital, and asked them to leave. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)
On a hot Saturday afternoon, five people stood outside the main entrance of Presbyterian Hospital in downtown Albuquerque.
By the hospital’s revolving entrance door, the group called MaskBlocABQ, a mutual aid network that distributes face masks and advocates for mitigations against COVID-19, placed a box of masks labeled in thick black marker “FREE.”
They held signs that read, “FREE MASKS,” “Life-saving masks here,” and “Keep masks in health care.”
In about one hour, they handed out 675 free high-filtration masks to patients, health care workers and visitors going to and from the hospital.
Whether governments or corporations require it or not, the group is committed to doing everything it can to stop or slow the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Some people declined the free mask. One nurse who works at the hospital gratefully took some, and said she would distribute them to her coworkers inside Presbyterian.
The overwhelming majority were either intrigued, neutral or enthusiastic about taking free masks.
Anyone who visits Presbyterian must first go inside the hospital to get a mask from the front desk, potentially exposing themselves to the airborne virus.
Everything was going smoothly for the mutual aid group until about 2:20 p.m., when two hospital security guards pulled up in a truck, got out and asked the group to leave.
One of the guards told Source NM that Presbyterian Hospital doesn’t have a policy prohibiting mask distribution, but does prohibit gathering on the property if someone has no business inside the hospital.
“They don’t want solicitors,” the guard told the group. “And I know you guys aren’t selling anything, you’re just giving out masks which, I don’t see a problem with that — I don’t see why anyone else would — but it’s just how our policy works.”
In response to questions from Source NM about the group giving away free masks, Dionne Cruz Miller, chief hospital executive at Presbyterian Hospital, said on Monday the hospital system doesn’t allow “vendors” to hand out anything on any of their campuses without approval.
Cruz Miller did not respond to a question asking why the surgical masks in the lobby at the hospital in Albuquerque are placed behind a desk and not in plain sight.
Heather Booth, a member of MaskBlocABQ and former health care worker, said she was disappointed by the hospital’s response.
“It’s disappointing that security would stop us when they are not requiring masks any more, and can’t even provide good ones before people have to go inside, and that (Presbyterian) would actively thwart us from doing that,” Booth said.
Keeping masks in health care
MaskBlocABQ’s mask distribution is similar to other grassroots efforts popping up across the U.S. and in other countries.
The Albuquerque group met online, and has been organizing during a summer surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States. While data on COVID spread is now very hard to come by, wastewater levels show five straight weeks of increases in the western part of the country, including New Mexico.
Saturday wasn’t the first time MaskBlocABQ had posted up in front of an Albuquerque hospital to hand out masks, but it was the first time a security guard has asked them to stop, members said.
Handing out masks outside Presbyterian Hospital was a direct action meant to demand keeping or returning masks in health care settings, which MaskBlocABQ members say became more necessary in April when every major hospital in New Mexico dropped masking requirements.
Other groups with similar goals are calling on state governors, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health officials and providers to require masking in all health care settings, and to provide masks for everyone in those settings.
They say lifting mask guidelines for health care is dangerous, unethical and based on flawed data.
The masks handed out on Saturday were just some of the thousands MaskBlocABQ got for free from nonprofit Project N95.
The local group has so far distributed 15,000 masks to people and organizations in New Mexico who will wear them and hand them out to the communities they serve.
Self Serve, an adult store in Albuquerque, volunteered to be a mask pick-up spot. The business also offers free masks via curbside pickup.
The store’s central location and excitement from employees to do the work makes it a good distribution point, said Kristen Fox, a member of MaskBlocABQ who joined the distribution on Saturday.
MaskBlocABQ also has a request form that can set up a delivery to anyone who needs masks.
The work is giving Fox hope that people are recommitting to masking, and those who have continued to do so all along are down to be more public about it and help hand out masks.
Who has been the most left behind by the pandemic?
MaskBlocABQ is an anti-capitalist group that seeks to educate people about the ongoing pandemic as the government, corporations and complicit media declare it over. They do not have leaders or hierarchy.
Debbie Cox, a member of the group, was chronically ill before the pandemic began.
“Now that there’s no masks in health care, I’m trying to weigh the pros and cons of delaying vital, recurring health care and catching COVID in the hospital,” Cox said.
Cox and other members of the mask bloc say her experience is just one example of a much larger problem happening to a lot of those people most left behind — but also connected together — by the pandemic: Black and Indigenous people, disabled people, chronically ill people, queer and trans people, and clinically vulnerable families who are staying out of schools.
The message from MaskBlocABQ is not one of doom and gloom, but instead a vision of how things could be different, and built on a radical understanding of cooperation, similar to the projects outlined in the book “Let This Radicalize You” by author-activists Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba.
“To resist the erosion of empathy, we must invite people to participate in acts of care, defense, and rescue,” Hayes and Kaba write. “We must normalize acts of mutual aid amid the everyday crisis of capitalism and build these mechanisms into our organizing work at the ground level.”
The group also wants to help anyone who can’t afford to either spend the time finding information about the ongoing pandemic, or to spend money on personal protective equipment, air purifiers or other ways to stay safe like curbside pickup.
COVID is often framed as only being a risk to disabled people, Fox said, and the group wants to center disability justice, but also wants to stress that everyone is at risk.
“It is a workplace safety issue and labor issue as well,” Fox said.
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