A winking yellow smiley face, complete with mask, grins from the front window of Iowa City downtown anchor store Active Endeavors. Inside, customers find a skeleton crew of masked employees who, after completing a daily health-related self-certification, spend the day waiting on customers, meticulously wiping down frequently touched surfaces, steaming clothing from the dressing rooms and directing customers to any of six sanitizing stations throughout the store.
Like many downtown businesses, Active Endeavors is working to be “COVID-conscious,” while staying afloat in the face of the pandemic — everyone puts on masks, but keeps smiling.
The cheerful face in the window is the logo of Mask of Wellness, brainchild of Mercy Hospital Iowa City ER doctor David Krupp and local pharmacist Robbie Schwenker. A grassroots program emphasizing simple safety practices, Mask of Wellness is making an effort to preserve the local economy while still keeping consumers and workers safe.
The idea originated when Krupp reached out to Schwenker at NuCara Pharmacy about a COVID-related project. That resulted in a discussion about how they, as health care providers, might save more lives working on prevention at a social level than could be saved in the ER. Krupp felt that a positive message creating a sense of self-empowerment during the health crisis could drastically improve the physical, psychological and economic wellness of the community.
“Our message from the start,” Schwenker said, “has been focused on bringing about positive change while avoiding strictures and mandates. Through choice, we have the ability to change the narrative.”
The program encompasses three simple steps intended to reduce the viral spread until a real solution (such as a vaccine) is found: One, masks are worn by all employees in all areas of the work environment; two, good personal, surface and distance hygiene is enforced; and three, daily health certifications (attesting no primary COVID-19 symptoms) are completed by workers. By meeting these requirements, businesses are certified “COVID-Conscious” and promoted as such on the Mask of Wellness website.
“Consumers will seek out COVID-Conscious businesses, which will benefit both the physical and economic wellness of the community,” Schwenker explained.
By positively promoting responsible behavior at a grassroots level, further “reopenings” encouraged by Gov. Kim Reynolds may be facilitated while keeping spaces as safe as possible.
Mask of Wellness’s straightforward message has drawn in volunteers from all over the community.
“Schwenker coordinated with Mike Draper from Raygun to create a logo, then linked in Iowa natives Breahna and Bryan Beecher of Revive Design Studios in Denver, Colorado for website development. Melinda Pradarelli at MELD marketing firm offered free assistance, and guidance from the EDC [Entrepreneurial Development Center] has helped tremendously,” Krupp said. “The flagship businesses in our website video — 30hop, Pagliai’s Pizza, Thompson & Co. and Boyd Crosby Construction — helped give us credibility.”
He and Schwenker have also marshaled a volunteer force made up of family, friends and coworkers who meet each week to continue to develop their vision.
On May 1, Krupp, Schwenker and a team of 20 students from the University of Iowa Medical and Pharmacy programs converged on the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall and distributed 300 free packets containing a letter of introduction, door clings, flyers and other printed information businesses could post in their stores and restaurants, as well as on websites and social media. Brian Nerad, a manager at Active Endeavors, said that when they received their packet, deciding to sign on was “a no-brainer.”
“We saw the web listing in particular as a way to contact a customer base that may not be aware of the changes we’ve made,” he said in a phone interview.
Once the launch of their local business listing was in sight (that list, now with more than 100 businesses, is posted on maskofwellness.com), Mask of Wellness began preparing to take their vision nationwide. The inclusion of Revive Design Studios on their volunteer team gave them a foothold in Denver already. The Beechers lived in Iowa City for eight years and were excited to get in on the project.
“Robbie is a good friend of ours from high school and beyond,” Breahna Beecher said in an email interview. “He called us one night to explain this social good project he was working on and wondered if we’d be interested in helping. We understood the importance pretty quickly, so we started working on it the next day. Being business owners, we understand how much hard work goes into getting your business started and keeping it running. It’s been hard for us to watch how COVID affects businesses, so we see Mask of Wellness as a way to give consumers a sense of confidence in their safety when visiting participating businesses.”
The next steps are already in the works. Krupp and Schwenker, working with MELD and EDC, are formulating a multi-pronged plan to get their message out to the rest of the country, including utilizing the power of social media, approaching nationally recognized syndicated columnists about articles, and sending directed communication to local and national organizations such as the National Retail Association, the National Homebuilders Association and local unions and chambers of commerce.
They are also looking for sponsorships and donations to help fund the initiative, and community engagement on social media to help Mask of Wellness go viral. Krupp also mentioned a series of webinars in the works, “to help provide perspectives on ways to curb the spread of this virus.” The biggest hurdle to overcome, Krupp said, may simply be psychology.
“We need a cognitive reframing of society to understand the power of our three impactful measures: masks, hygiene, health,” he said. “Unfortunately, masks are polarizing, but that is an issue that will change. This is a barrier requiring a complex response.”
Karen Kubby, long-time downtown business supporter and owner of Beadology, was approached directly by Krupp and now has a sticker in her window. Kubby, like many business owners, takes her safety protocols further than the three basic steps outlined by Mask of Wellness, but her association with the program still provides value.
“As people read what those three criteria are and see the Mask of Wellness sticker, they will know that we are meeting the basic criteria,” she said. “That creates consumer confidence.”
She also sees Mask of Wellness’s message as an effective positive-reinforcement tactic.
“We can spiral down what we can’t do,” Kubby said. “Or, we can focus on what we can do.”
Suzanne Cody considers masks to be a new opportunity for self-expression. She self-isolates in Iowa City. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 282.