With restrictions lifting and people stepping out into the community more, the city of Duluth and various partners have launched an initiative centered on normalizing mask wearing among youth.

Mayor Emily Larson said the hope is for the project to be a conversation starter among families, especially those with younger kids who might not understand why they're seeing so many people wearing masks.

"Kids are used to seeing masks for dress-up time or for Halloween, but to see adults walking around in them is probably kind of scary and unsettling at a time when everything feels kind of scary and unsettling," Larson said.

Preston Conway, 8, of Duluth works on a mask design in a community area of AICHO in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Preston Conway, 8, of Duluth works on a mask design in a community area of AICHO in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The project invites youth to design their own mask pattern on a sheet of paper. After June 5, when design submissions are due, the city will choose designs to highlight on the city and mayor's Facebook page as well as in City Hall.

A Duluth company will also print some of the winning designs on masks to be given to youth in need of one, said city spokesperson Kate Van Daele, though the details of that will not be announced until an outside funding source has been finalized.

Although children are less likely to become very ill from COVID-19, they can host and spread the disease without knowing, which is why Larson said it's important for families to feel comfortable encouraging their kids to wear masks.

Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth uses a pencil to sketch out a mask design. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth uses a pencil to sketch out a mask design. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

One likely reason why it's not very common to see youth wearing masks, Larson said, is because families haven't had the chance to talk about it yet.

"The pandemic feels like it came on so quickly and then all of a sudden everything just comes to an abrupt halt, when you're staying home a lot you don't really have to think about masks as much," Larson said.

She added that the youth mask project is a way families can engage proactively with what's going in the world during a time when so much is reactionary.

Duluth families have started engaging with the project since it was announced Wednesday.

Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth talks to her mom Christy Martin while working on mask designs in a community area of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth.  (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth talks to her mom Christy Martin while working on mask designs in a community area of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Christy Martin and her three children sat down Friday to participate in the project after learning about it through the American Indian Community Housing Organization, where they live.

Her 11-year old daughter Patience Thompson planned to draw a mask pattern inspired by flowers and nature. She wears a mask to respect and protect her elders.

"It takes everyone's efforts to make sure other people are safe," Thompson said.

Echoing Larson, Martin said she's seen younger kids, like her 1-year-old nephew, become startled when he saw her wearing a mask.

"He doesn't really recognize us when we have our masks on," Martin said, adding that her 3-year-old son also didn't recognize her once when the family first started getting accustomed to wearing masks.

Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth looks up for a moment while creating a mask design in a community room of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. Thompson is wearing a face mask designed by Anishinaabe-Algonquin-Metis artist Leah Yellowbird for the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin program youth in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth looks up for a moment while creating a mask design in a community room of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. Thompson is wearing a face mask designed by Anishinaabe-Algonquin-Metis artist Leah Yellowbird for the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin program youth in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

"Now he's so used to it, it's just a normal thing," she said. "He keeps his mask on so good. He knows that if we go anywhere you got to have your mask on."

While masks were provided to tenants at AICHO, Martin said she and her daughter learned how to make a smaller mask using a sock for her 3-year-old son by watching a video online.

The family has worn masks from the beginning to protect their friends in the building and those at-risk.

"We're all putting each other at risk if we don't cover, especially the elders," Thompson said.

In addition to the city of Duluth, the youth mask project is in partnership with Essentia Health, St. Luke’s, Duluth Public Schools, St. Louis County, AICHO and the Duluth Area Family YMCA.

Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth works on a mask design Friday afternoon in a community room of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. The city of Duluth has started an initiative to normalize mask wearing among youth and make it less scary, confusing and weird. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Patience Thompson, 11, of Duluth works on a mask design Friday afternoon in a community room of the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. The city of Duluth has started an initiative to normalize mask wearing among youth and make it less scary, confusing and weird. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

How to participate

Instructions for those interested in participating can be found on the city of Duluth's website and Facebook page. Submissions are due by 5 p.m. June 5.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Those who have access to a printer can print a template at duluthmn.gov/covid19/duluth-youth-mask-project. For assistance, contact the city's communication team at communications@duluthmn.gov.
  • Use colors to show your work.
  • Create a digital scan of your design or take a picture and email it to communications@duluthmn.gov. They can also be mailed to the City of Duluth Communications Team, 411 W. First St., Duluth, MN 55802.
  • Include your name, age and school in the submission.

  • Have a parent or guardian sign the release form.