Marshan Allen and Tamala Allen, selfie
Marshan and Tamala Allen wear masks by Jobi Cates, who has made 500 of them, including for her neighbours in South Evanston, Illinois, since the pandemic began

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Most mornings I roust my two elderly rescue dogs out of their beds, or mine, and rush them down to our local beach so we do not miss the sunrise (which is inconveniently early these days — who knew?)

I pull my handmade batik cotton mask tight over nose and mouth and snap on a pair of neon-purple disposable gloves for the treacherous journey from the ninth floor to the street. The goal is to avoid contact with neighbours, in the normally neighbourly small town where I live on the shores of Lake Michigan.

It is more than three months since I went into quarantine and although my state of Illinois has partially reopened, I am still almost entirely locked down due to medical conditions that make me vulnerable to Covid-19. During that time, I have spoken in person to no more neighbours than can be counted on one purple-gloved hand.

But I have never felt less isolated. And that is where the batik mask and the sunrise snapshots come in: they are pandemic gifts that bring me closer than ever before to neighbours that I never see if I can help it.

I do not even let the pups pee on the way to the beach, so great is my hurry to capture the Great Lakes dawn in an iPhone snap. The excuse for all that haste? I want to send the morning snap — or video clip, if the waves sound particularly fetching — to my shut-in neighbour on the sixth floor. I have scarcely said two words to her all the time we have lived in the same building, but now I cannot rest until I have gifted her a sunrise.

Lee Street beach in Evanston, Illinois © Patti Waldmeir
An iPhone snap of the Lake Michigan beach near Patti Waldmeir's home; she takes pictures for a neighbour who is confined

I do not do it for her: I do it for me. I tried sending my sunrises to a) my elderly dad in Detroit b) a friend in Berlin and c) an old boyfriend living in Italy. He responded with a photo of the view from his patio above Lake Lugano, so I lost that game of pandemic one-upmanship.

Friends and relatives replied politely, if at all — but my shut-in neighbour always responded with genuine delight, not to mention a few wise meditations on life, to start my day. She has given me the gift of purpose: I would wake at 5am with or without her but with her, I have a reason to get out of bed.

Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago, is not all unrelenting compassion and tolerance now, any more than in normal times. Our local social networking site, Nextdoor South Evanston, has been filled with particular vitriol recently over two topics that divide all Americans: whether to abolish the police, and whether to wear a mask in public.

Chicago has seen some of the biggest antiracism protests of the past few weeks, when Americans have demonstrated in unprecedented numbers and diversity after the brutal death of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis.

masks © Jobi Cates
Cates's masks: 'I am someone who has dealt with my anxiety through crafting for a long time, so I have an inordinate amount of quilting fabric,' she says © Jobi Cates

Early on, the neighbourhood list was filled with nervous posts about looting (there has been very little near me) and now the debate has moved on to ask: can the police be reformed or does it have to be dismantled altogether? Both topics have led to angry exchanges.

It does not help that President Donald Trump refuses to don a face covering, and he mocked his presumptive Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, for masking up during the recent Memorial Day holiday.

But their skirmishes are nothing compared with the flame-throwing on Nextdoor South Evanston, between the “mask police” and the face-covering libertarians.

For every 10 who spout off online about coronavirus or race, however, there is at least one South Evanstonian who is doing more than talk about protecting our neighbourhood. Every morning on our forced march to the beach, I pass the chocolate-brick walk-up of neighbour Jobi Cates, who has turned out more than 500 masks since the pandemic began — including the one on my face.

Patti and Jobi outside the closed playground of Lincoln Elementary School, in Evanston, Illinois, the school right next to Jobi's house and down the block from Patti's apartment. BTW playground remains closed by law but people are using it now © Tom Cates
Neighbours Cates and Waldmeir © Tom Cates

When my 89-year-old father needed one in Detroit, she whipped one off to him by no-contact delivery. Members of our local book club scored some that she made out of animal-patterned quilting scraps and geometric-designed crafting remnants.

But many of her masks went to the families of those she campaigns for at her charity Restore Justice: mostly mothers whose children have been imprisoned for life without parole, for crimes committed as juveniles.

“I am someone who has dealt with my anxiety through crafting for a long time, so I have an inordinate amount of quilting fabric . . . and for some reason there are quilting shops near prisons,” says Cates, who challenged the practice in Illinois of sentencing juveniles to life sentences “without the possibility of parole”, which was partially overturned as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 2012.

Cates's husband Tom and daughter Stella help make the masks
© Jobi Cates

Since then, many of those she has helped have been resentenced or released from prison — and many of their families got free masks from her when the pandemic hit. “At first I had a supply of elastic which ran out fairly quickly and for a short period I used shoelaces and old conference badge straps,” she recalls.

In the pandemic era, sewing masks could be construed as political but she says the divide “is not really a Republican/Democrat thing, it’s more of a rural/urban split. People in rural communities have not seen the staggering numbers we have seen in urban areas”.

It comes down to a basic human divide, she says, between “people who have a predisposition to tribe and those who aren’t disposed to sacrifice something for someone who is not in their tribe”. Cates says she has been heartened by the breadth of support for the antiracism demonstrations.

“When the protests began, I did not dare to hope they would reach beyond anger around policing. And I was (and still am) very concerned about backlash. But I can’t help but hope for the future, seeing protests in small towns and big cities, including people who have never protested before.”

Cates’s “tribe” includes the families of the “juvenile lifers” she campaigns for. Marshan Allen and his wife wear her masks: he was released after serving “24 years, eight months and two days” of what would have been a life sentence without parole for a felony murder conviction at age 15.

“When we first got them we sprayed them with Lysol [a disinfectant], but now we can’t find Lysol, so we wash them every day,” he says.

Julie Anderson’s son Eric will be out in five years, after serving 30 years for a crime committed at 15. She says the US “should just have done this super strict and been done with it [the virus]” instead of a sometimes laxly observed quarantine. “People don’t get it, it’s not about you, it’s about the rest of us.”

Evelyn Wingard (selfie)
Evelyn Wingard wearing one of Cates's masks: 'I wear it, I wash it, and I keep it in my purse all the time,' she says

Evelyn Wingard got 24 masks, including five for great-grandchildren. Her son Joseph was released just before the pandemic hit, after 29 years in prison for a crime committed at 17. He wears a mask to his job at a funeral home, and she and her daughter wear them when distributing food — and other masks — to those in need.

“I wear it, I wash it, and I keep it in my purse all the time,” she says, adding, “The Bible says obey the laws of the land and that’s the law of the land.”

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Cynthia Morfin has a Cates mask too: her son Nicholas is due out of prison next year. “My only fear is that he’ll get sick now when he’s just about to come home.”

To all of us, these homemade masks are an unexpected gift of the pandemic — and a symbol of how our community, so devastatingly weakened by the virus, is also so much stronger because of it. As a nation, we have drawn together for the most widespread antiracism protests in 50 years, and as a neighbourhood we have made masks and snapped pandemic photos.

It is not much, especially at a time when great social movements are afoot, but it is something we can do in our own small way in the name of love, in the time of coronavirus.

Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s North America correspondent

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