Hill Neighbors Mask It Up For The Holidays

Lucy Gellman | December 9th, 2020

Hill Neighbors Mask It Up For The Holidays

Crafts  |  Culture & Community  |  Arts & Culture  |  The Hill  |  Public Health  |  COVID-19



Jose DeJesus, treasurer for the Hill North Community Management Team and a community health educator at the Yale School of Public Health. Screenshots via Zoom.

Jose DeJesus wore his face mask over his eyes. Leslie Radcliffe moved it to the top of her forehead, and it was suddenly a bandana. Health Director Maritza Bond perched it on top of her head like a dainty little hat. Then within seconds, they readjusted so their noses and mouths were covered.

All of them did it to spread an urgent public health message—about not spreading a potentially deadly virus as it surges across the state and the country.

That was the scene at a joint, end-of-year meeting of the Hill North and Hill South Community Management Teams Tuesday night, during time allotted for a customary holiday activity. After COVID-19 dashed the groups’ hopes for gathering in person, they moved the party online. Thirty-two participants attended the meeting on Zoom, many in festive dress. At least one attendee lifted a customary glass of coquito to the group.

“We needed to lighten it up a little bit,” said Radcliffe, who designed the activity, in a phone call after the meeting. “Usually it’s food, fellowship, and fun, but we couldn’t do that this year. Whenever there's a workshop or a seminar that I'm involved in, I like to do icebreakers to get people comfortable. Someone had mentioned that people could wear their masks, and then a lightbulb just went off.”


It fit the tenor of the evening. Between Christmas carols, floppy Santa hats and wishes for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, Yale New Haven Hospital Community Relations Coordinator Andrew Orefice urged attendees to mask up correctly and practice safety around the holidays. He said that it’s been particularly frustrating to watch people disregard prevailing public health advice as they continue to gather, causing cases to surge as hospitals across the state grow perilously close to capacity.

Health Director Maritza Bond delivered the city’s latest COVID-19 numbers, which put New Haven over an 8 percent positivity rate with 72 percent of hospital beds full at Yale New Haven Hospital. On a map tracking citywide positivity, 499 new cases appeared between November 24 and December 7. Fair Haven and sections of Whalley/Edgewood and the Hill burned deep orange and red.

“Please, please please be our messengers and our leaders,” she said. “I’ve seen people with the mask on their head, the mask on their chin like it’s a beard. That is not correct.”


Leslie Radcliffe: It's one thing everybody can do. 

Then Radcliffe turned the tables. Kicking off a “surprise group activity” that had been listed on an agenda festooned with bronze bells and holly leaves, she asked attendees to pull out their favorite masks and then readjust them to the incorrect positions. On two pages of Zoom screens, cameras flickered on, attendees laughing.

Project Longevity’s Stacy Spell slipped his onto his chin, his deep, rolling laugh almost audible through the screen as he cracked a huge smile. Radcliffe placed hers on her forehead, and appeared suddenly ready to attend Woodstock. Bond moved hers to the center of her head, in what looked like a tiny blue Onassis-era pillbox hat.

DeJesus, Hill North treasurer and a community health educator at the Yale School of Public Health, moved a cloth mask with two clinking glasses and the words “Wine Not?” over his eyes. Under the wide brim of his straw hat, he looked like he was ready for some beauty sleep.

Both Orefice and Traffic, Transportation and Parking Director Doug Hausladen missed the memo and brought a ski mask and balaclava respectively, as if they had prepared for a bank robbery or routine at New Haven’s Scores club. Balaclavas, like gaiters and bandanas, are not among the Health Department’s mask recommendations for city residents.


Project Longevity Director Stacy Spell. 

Radcliffe asked attendees if any of them had seen poor mask etiquette around town. Bond and DeJesus said they’ve seen masks frequently used as wristlets, dangling like fashion accessories instead of vital safeguards against COVID-19. DeJesus recalled a recent trip to an auto body shop on Whalley Avenue, in which a fellow customer entered without a mask. DeJesus asked him to put his mask on. He got an earful in return.

“You thought I was asking him for a kidney,” he said. “He was irate”

Radcliffe urged fellow Hill residents to “just state your case and move on” if they too end up in that position. Her reminder joins similar citywide mask efforts, including mask campaigns from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Common Ground High School and a mask mandate that has been in effect since April 15.

“Some people are getting absolutely ridiculous with their response,” she said. “We don’t want to increase that number, and we don’t want to get in a fistfight at home depot.”


City Health Director Maritza Bond: “Please, please please be our messengers and our leaders." 

Radcliffe has become something of a mask evangelist in both her family and her neighborhood this year. After the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended public mask usage in April, Radcliffe sewed 87 masks for family members in Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago and South Carolina. Then she sewed another hundred for students returning to Highville Charter School in Science Park. Then another 100 for a friend’s church.

Nine months into the pandemic, she estimated that she’s sewn 300, including child-sized masks that she keeps around the house in case she sees neighbors or passers-by who might need them. In June, she also organized a team of 120 volunteers to distribute 27,000 masks in the neighborhood.

“That is one thing that everybody can do, wear a mask,” she said in a phone call after the meeting. “Wear your mask. Everybody's got things that they have to do. They have to make their own decision about the risks they have to take. I see people going to work every day because they have to go to work every day. And I have tried not to be judgmental in any way, but the one thing you can do is wear your mask.”

She added that she practices what she preaches. Wearing masks in public is hard for her, because her allergies make it hard to breathe. But if she’s around other people or in a store, she’s got one on. 


At home, she and her brother comprise a COVID-19 “pod” of just two people. Every day, she checks in with her Hamden-based son, daughter-in-law, and two teenage grandchildren on FaceTime. While her holidays will be quieter this year, she said she’s not taking any chances with gathering. Deliberate isolation has worked for her this long. She trusts it. 

“The death angel has not touched any of my family members' doors,” she said. “It's gonna be a joyous occasion. I'm just going to stay home. If I wake up that morning, if my family wakes up … it's gonna be a joyous occasion.”