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Hawaii embraces aloha print masks while fighting coronavirus

HONOLULU (AP) — Face masks made with the same colorful prints used for aloha shirts — known as “Hawaiian shirts” elsewhere in the United States — are the latest fashion trend in Hawaii as islanders try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Disposable surgical masks are in short supply, and people want to preserve what’s available for nurses and doctors working with COVID-19 patients. So those who know how to sew are digging fabric scraps out of their closets or cutting up old aloha shirts to make masks at home. Local designers are offering some for sale online, but are struggling to keep up with a surge in demand as people scramble to adhere to new public health guidelines to cover their mouth and nose.

The aloha prints are serving as a cheerful expression of Hawaii as people persevere through the sometimes dreary days of staying indoors, avoiding other people and eschewing customary hugs and kisses.

It’s “another way of really showing the love and aloha spirit for each other,” said Candy Suiso, a high school teacher who wears masks made by her sister. “Especially in these times right now, when we can’t see our family, we can’t see our friends, we can’t see our co-workers.”

As of Tuesday, Hawaii reported 517 people had tested positive for the coronavirus and nine people had died. Aloha shirts first emerged in Hawaii in the 1930s and became accepted business wear locally in the 1960s. They often come in bright colors, featuring island motifs such as hibiscus flowers, seashells and palm trees. Or they might show Chinese calligraphy or Japanese carp, reflecting the myriad cultures of immigrants who have shaped Hawaii’s modern culture.

Some of today’s most sought-after designers use fabric drawn with native plants that play a prominent role in Native Hawaiian legends and hula chants. Suiso wore a bright bird of paradise mask recently when she went to pick up something at her office. Everyone serving free grab-and-go lunches so students can eat while school is closed was wearing masks, most with aloha prints.

Her husband Mark, who works at a bank and thus is still going out daily, wears one with mangos, in reflection of the mango farm the family runs in the town of Makaha. “He’s known as the Mango Man, so when he wears his mango mask, it’s a nice topic of conversation,” she said.

Waikiki resident Ricardo Lay said his mother made him an aloha print mask because it’s hard to find protective gear for sale. He likes it because it’s an expression of where he’s from. “People know that I’m from here, right? That’s the primary reason.”

On Monday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell declared fabric stores an essential business, allowing them to sell to an onslaught of people wanting to make their own masks. Hawaii designer Kini Zamora’s foray into masks started with YouTube videos he made to show people how to make their own. Then he began making masks to donate to hospitals, school food servers and people who deliver Meals on Wheels to seniors.

Zamora found many wanted to buy masks from him because they don’t sew, didn’t have fabric or wanted to contribute to his donation efforts. So he started selling masks online, pledging to donate two masks for each one sold. His first batch of 50 to 100 sold out within a day. His latest batch of 50 sold out in a few hours.

“Everyone just flooded our emails wanting more. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everybody just needs it right now, I guess,’” Zamora said. “It just came super quick.” So far, he's donated more than 600 masks and sold about 300.

Nurse practitioner Coty George generally wears a surgical mask while working, or an N95 respirator mask like when she recently took swabs from patients to test them for COVID-19. But at home she wears a cloth mask to protect her 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter just in case she may have contracted the disease at work. She doesn’t want to infect them, and then have them infect her parents who babysit. She recently posted on social media a photo of her modeling one of her cloth masks, from the designer Ari South, over a surgical mask. It has yellow and orange puakenikeni flowers on a green background.

George said the locally made aloha print masks harken back to the long-ago days when people in Hawaii would make clothes out of rice sacks. “It reminds you that we can do this, we can be sustainable, we can be resourceful,” she said. Plus, the aloha prints are more personal.

“You have to wear it anyway, why not be proud to wear it and to feel somehow supported by the community,” she said.

Associated Press journalist Caleb Jones in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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