Dayanara Chacon and Jesus Parra model their masks. Contributed Photos.
High school senior Dayanara Chacon wears a mask because it protects her family and her peers. Sierra Vazquez does it because she feels like COVID-19 has put her senior year on pause. Ebriana Eden puts one on because there are babies in her home, and she can’t risk transmitting a deadly virus. Now, all of them are planning to photograph themselves masking up in an attempt to spread an urgent public health message.
The three are part of a new selfie campaign from seniors at Common Ground High School and the City of New Haven to encourage mask usage among young people. Dubbed #MaskUpNHV, the campaign asks young people to snap a mask selfie and post it to social media with the hashtag and a short sentence on why they choose to wear a mask.
The campaign was announced Wednesday morning in a press conference with Mayor Justin Elicker, Health Director Maritza Bond and Community Health Worker Ermonda Gjoni-Markaj. The city’s Health Department plans to re-share the images on its Facebook, Twitter and TikTok accounts. It comes as the city passes 4,621 cases and over 120 fatalities. As of Wednesday afternoon, Connecticut had reported 109,152 total cases and 4,926 deaths.
“Most teenagers, or at least that I know of, they just want to hang out with their friends,” Chacon said. “So this whole Covid thing is really bumming them out. And sometimes when they do hang out, they completely forget about rules. So [this is] letting people, especially kids our age, be more aware. Because we can carry the disease. And even though it may not affect us, like, we may not get symptoms, we can give it to our loved ones.”
The campaign came out of a community service project at Common Ground, in which Vazquez suggested that seniors focus on COVID-19 awareness and best public health practices. As a student and a New Havener, she has seen the social and economic impact of the virus firsthand, as friends and family members get sick, lose work, and struggle with remote communication. While the city launched an initial Mask It Up campaign in April, Vazquez didn’t see young people getting the message.
“I feel like it put all of us on pause,” Vazquez said. “It’s like, we don’t want to feel this major weight on us because of the virus. It’s like, all of us planned something for our lives and Coronavirus kind of stopped it.”
Enter the idea of social media for good. Chacon pointed to a crop of social media influencers who have continued to party as millions of followers watch on TikTok and Instagram. When her peers see those videos, they “think, 'Oh yeah, it’s okay for me to hang out with my friends and not wear a mask,' and completely forget about Covid guidelines,” she said. At Common Ground, seniors hope #MaskUpNHV will have the opposite effect.
A photo of Juan Castillo from the city's Mask It Up campaign, which launched through the New Haven Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism earlier this year. Lucy Gellman File Photo.
“I strongly believe, especially with our generation, social media is such a large platform,” Vazquez chimed in. “It’s easy to spread the word on things. Everybody is on their phone. Everybody is checking their Instagram, their TikTok. If others are seeing how important it is for us, the sincerity and the generosity of working together, they’re gonna understand, they’re gonna want to be a part of it.”
Wednesday, a handful of students also spoke about their own now-Instagrammable reasons for following the city’s mask mandate. Senior Ebriana Eden has a number of young kids in her home, meaning that she’s constantly worried about spreading the virus to their little bodies.
Emalee Ocasio does it for her family, she said. Prior to March, she was a straight A student at Common Ground. When school went remote, she suddenly found herself trying to juggle classes and babysitting younger siblings in the house. Her mom has lupus, meaning that she is immunosuppressed and at higher risk of contracting and getting severely sick from COVID-19. Her grades have slipped, and so has her morale.
Chacon proudly dons a white mask because she knows that she can help flatten the COVID-19 curve more quickly if she and those around her comply. This year, she has struggled with remote classes and college applications, often wishing she was in person when she has questions about the Common App and labyrinthine financial aid forms.
And, she added, because they’re the hottest fashion accessory of 2020—especially when they’re worn correctly. Wednesday, she modeled by pulling a white mask over her mouth and nose and securing the ear loops. She was ready to go out into the world.
“Masks, I think, can look really fashionable,” she said. “You can make ‘em work. But make sure you’re getting ones that are fitting. Masks can really change the game in the fashion industry."