Need a mask? In one California town, they appear to be growing on trees

Need a mask? In one Marin County town, they seemingly grow on trees. 

"I hang them low, I hang them high, I know that people of all heights are going to walk through town," said Sara Robinson, who leads the volunteer effort to distribute free facial coverings by leaving them on San Anselmo trees. 

Almost as soon as they are hung, they are plucked by passersby. 

"They're ready to wear when you take them off the tree," said Robinson, explaining how cloth masks and bandanas are hand-washed, sun-dried, handled in a sanitary fashion, and stapled securely into a sandwich baggie before hanging. "Our mask makers create many colors and people stand in front of the trees for awhile deciding what will fit their personality." 

She got the idea after hearing a COVID-19 presentation that mentioned mask-trees in the Czech Republic. 

That country knocked out the coronavirus swiftly with early and universal use of masks. 

Marshaling the all-volunteer "Age-Friendly San Anselmo," the effort took root in mid-June, one day after California made masks mandatory.  

"Many people weren't used to that yet, so to see a mask readily available on the tree in front of them made it easier to wear one and it made our town more welcoming."  

The launch also coincided with street closures and outdoor dining, so downtown San Anselmo was busy with people. 

"The business owners came up to me the first night and thanked me, saying they couldn't believe how many people they were turning away who don't have masks, but now they could send them down the street."

The mask trees are along well-traveled streets and in prominent parks. 

More than 100 masks are put out each week, both cloth and surgical style. 

A newly established GoFundMe page is raising money for additional materials. 

There are plans to provide masks in San Rafael's less affluent Canal district, hard-hit by the virus and in need of masks. 

"I'll send some over there, I think everybody needs to have them," said volunteer seamstress Jacqueline Gutterman, who has made hundreds of masks for the tree project. 

She started out sewing masks for family and friends, then began offering them free and for-sale on social media. 

But seeing her handiwork dangling from branches is unique. 

"I have seen people wearing them around town, and I just saw a lady pick one off the tree and it was one of mine, so that's a nice feeling.  

The local Age-Friendly chapter has a successful relationship with local leaders and was already providing volunteer assistance to shut-in seniors. 

"When they came to us, who would say no to this idea?" said San Anselmo town manager David Donery, who admits he sometimes leaves the house and forgets a mask. 

"You're busy and you walk out the door, sometimes people pull up their shirts, knowing they need one, but this way, voila there's a mask!" 

Donery calls the project a great example of compassion and community. 

Mask trees may sprout next in Mill Valley and Corte Madera. 

"That's a real source of pride and if people have the capacity to do this, they should, it makes people feel good," said Donery.

Organizers get a variety of reactions when they hang the masks. 

"Some people say it's like Christmas," said Robinson," and some say they've been wearing their mask for weeks, they're tired of it, so they give me some money and grab a new one." 

Recently she received a cash donation and heartfelt thanks from a palliative-care nurse. 

"She said she takes care of people who are dying of COVID, and she just wishes more people would wear masks, and what we are doing is so important."  

Educational signs accompany the mask tree, explaining the purpose and importance of masks.  

"I hope this spreads through the Bay Area and beyond so people don't hesitate to put on a mask," said Robinson. "Let's make it fun, let's make it easy, let's get rid of this pandemic."