Sushi, aka Gary Marion; Jeff Kucin; and Calen Tomaszewski, aka Epiphany, model the handmade masks. STEPHEN COURTER/Contributed

What do Key West drag queens, snowbird grandmothers and laid-off tourism workers have in common? 

Answer: Sewing machines, spare time and a desire to help their Florida Keys community in this time of crisis.

Between March 21 and 25, groups and individuals throughout the Lower Keys and Key West have come together — online only, of course — to sew handmade cotton face masks to protect healthcare workers and anyone else seeking to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.

Gary Marion, aka Sushi, Key West’s legendary drag queen, head of The 801 Girls and accomplished seamstress, has enlisted help from “her girls” and husband Jeff Kucin to wash, cut and iron fabric and elastic while Marion does the sewing.

“Drag queens don’t save their money, so anything I can do to put them to work for a few hours a day will help as well,” Marion said, laughing.

“I just started two days ago, and am approaching about 150 peace sign masks,” Marion said. “I think I have enough peace sign material for another 50 masks. But I also went to the Seam Shoppe in town, and the owner donated more fabric, plus I tore apart a bunch of old swatch books for more material.”

Margo Ellis sews cotton masks to donate. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly
Key West drag queen Sushi, aka Gary Marion, models the masks she and her crew have been making and donating. STEPHEN COURTER/Contributed
Gary Marion, aka Sushi, Key West’s legendary drag queen and accomplished seamstress, is making and donating cotton masks for local healthcare professionals. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

Meanwhile, 20-some miles up the road, Dee Dee Vaughan on LIttle Torch Key was in search of a project to help her mother stay busy while staying indoors. On March 21, she formed the Lower Keys and Key West Face Mask Sewing Group on Facebook to coordinate requests for masks and volunteers to produce them.

“I actually don’t sew, I just coordinate the group,” said Vaughan, who has fielded and fulfilled requests from the Key West Health & Rehab Center, a nursing home on Stock Island.

“They’d been using bed sheets and T-shirts for masks at the nursing home, so we were able to get them some quickly. And we also got a request from Monroe Association for Remarkable Citizens (MARC), which operates a group home. Sushi and her team were able to make those masks, as well as several for Advanced Urgent Care.”

Vaughan emphasized that the handmade, machine-washable cotton masks are not a medically equivalent substitute for the ideal N-95 protective masks for health care workers.

“But we’ve got to provide something for the people putting themselves on the front line to fight this virus and care for people,” she said. “And if nothing else, at least it acts as a visual reminder to people to keep their distance while preventing them from touching their faces.”

The groups have produced more than 200 total masks with more constantly in production.

“I can handle pickups and requests from Big Pine to Key West,” Vaughan said.”But if someone is starting groups in Marathon and the Upper Keys, I’m happy to help them coordinate their efforts and provide information and patterns.

“I really believe that in times like these, such as after a hurricane, the best way for people to not feel like victims is to feel as if they’re contributing in some way. We need to feel in control of something. But unlike the days following a storm, there’s nothing to clean up. We’re just being told to stay inside and wait. And this at least fills a desperate need in our community and enables people to actively contribute to their community.”

People with no sewing skills may also be able to help with cutting, ironing, washing and collecting fabric and elastic.

Vaughan established an email address to take requests for masks at [email protected]. Sushi’s contact info for requests as well as donations of material and/or money to continue the production is available through the Venmo phone app or under the account called KeyWest801Girls.

Jim Gilleran, right, co-founder of One Clean Island, delivers handmade masks to Dr. Bruce Boros at Advanced Urgent Care. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly
Margo Ellis sews cotton masks to donate. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly
Darlene Gilkison is sewing these masks with the Lower Keys & Key West Sewing Group on Facebook, who are working to sew and donate masks and share material and supplies. CONTRIBUTED

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