SAN DIEGO - While the county's face mask order may be a valuable tool for reducing the spread of COVID-19, it has had an unexpected negative impact on the hearing-impaired community, who can no longer read lips when they interact with masked employees at essential businesses.
Michael Conley was born deaf and relies on lip-reading to interact with the public as well as his colleagues and customers as membership services manager at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego.
"As soon as I heard that masks were going to be required, I knew I was in big trouble," said Conley. "All I see is a face. I cannot make out facial gestures, which is a big part of understanding what a person is saying. Because I can't hear, if people are speaking with a mask, I don't even know they are speaking to me."
Over the past two months, the North Park resident has developed a few ways to bridge the communication gap, like carrying along paper and pen to write notes at the pharmacy and bringing a friend to restaurants who can order takeout for them both.
But a new prototype face mask, being designed in Conley's honor by the manager of San Diego Opera's costume shop, could make life a lot easier for him and many others with hearing loss in San Diego County.
San Diego Opera's Ingrid Helton is hard at work on a washable cloth face mask that will have a clear, unfoggable plastic shield over the mouth area. She hopes to have a couple of prototypes finished next week to send to the Fleet Science Center for testing. The goal is to find the best mask design and make enough for all of the Fleet employees so that Conley, and other members of the deaf community, can read their lips.
The idea for the clear panel face masks came from Chris LaZich, the museum's vice president of advancement. During an online staff meeting after the museum shut down in March, Conley told her about the challenges he was having with the face mask health order.
"In planning for reopening the museum I took this to heart. I thought there has to be a way to help people like him, as well as people for whom English isn't their first language," said LaZich, who spent 26 years at San Diego Opera before joining the Fleet in 2017. "Then I thought, if anyone is capable of working with unusual designs, it's the team at the Opera. I've seen them make things out of the craziest materials."
So she reached out to Helton, who has worked in San Diego Opera's costume department off and on for the past 16 years. Helton was idled after the opera company was forced to postpone all three of its planned spring productions. To make productive use of her time, she launched a face-mask sewing project.
Over the past two months, Helton has led an all-volunteer team of seven costume and wardrobe stitchers in sewing and donating nearly 1,000 cloth face masks to Salud Para La Gente, a bilingual health clinic in Watsonville that is handing the masks out to migrant farm workers and their families in the Central Valley.