Masked murals debut to encourage COVID-19 safety

The “Latinx Heroes” mural at Julia De Burgos Elementary School in Fairhill has been temporarily updated to reflect the times. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Six of Philadelphia’s Latino pioneers have embraced mask wearing, or, at least, their Lehigh Avenue likenesses have.

Mural Arts has installed six temporary masks on its “Latinx Heroes” piece at Julia De Burgos Elementary School in Fairhill.

Similar changes have been made to murals of singer Marian Anderson in Graduate Hospital and community organizer Herman Wrice in Mantua. Smaller murals have been created to promote mask wearing at recreation centers in North, Northeast and Southwest Philadelphia.

It’s part of a campaign to encourage residents to continue covering their faces, even as the novel coronavirus pandemic appears to have weakened.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, who spoke at the unveiling of the Fairhill mural, acknowledged the progress Philadelphia has made against COVID-19 and urged people not to let their guard down.

“We have an increasing number of weapons that we use and can use to fight this virus and this epidemic, from improvements in testing to improvements in treatment,” he said. “But nothing is more important than the mask.”

“For all that we’ve seen over the past seven months, we are not aware of a single case of spread of COVID from one person to another where both people were wearing masks,” Farley added.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley speaks Thursday, Oct. 1, outside Julia De Burgos Elementary School, where masks have been added to a prominent mural. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

A team from FKB, a fabricating studio near De Burgos Elementary, used drones to measure parts of the mural so the masks would be anatomically accurate. They’re screwed on and built in a way that allows them to be removed with little-to-no damage to the mural.

Mural Arts has also partnered with the health department to place hundreds of decals around the city with themes related to virus safety.

“Anything we can do to be part of getting this message everywhere, we are all in,” said Jane Golden, the program’s founder and director.

Mask wearing has dropped in Philadelphia, from a high of 96% in late August to 76% Sept. 20, according to a count by health department surveyors who analyze security footage from inside stores.

Farley said during his weekly press briefing Tuesday that the decrease could be a random variation, though officials are monitoring the statistic.

“Definitely, it’s a reason for our concern,” he said.

He said people should wear a mask if they are inside around people they don’t live with and outside if they are within 6 feet of a non-household member.

City officials have been hoping to get the message out, especially to Black and Latino communities, which have been more severely impacted by the coronavirus.

The “Latinx Heroes” mural is steps away from 5th Street and Lehigh Avenue, the center of the city’s Puerto Rican community, and it faces Fairhill Square, a neighborhood park.

De Burgos Elementary opened as a satellite election office earlier this week.

Fairhill, one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, recorded a 7.4% positive COVID-19 test rate over the past two weeks, among the highest in the city, according to health department data.

Hispanics age 75 and older have had the most cases per 10,000 people in the city, and the third highest group is Hispanics 55 to 74. The statistics also indicate elderly Hispanic Philadelphians are most likely to be hospitalized and die if they are infected with the virus.

In addition, white and Black residents are more likely to get tested than Hispanics, though racial information has not been gathered from everyone who has been tested.

“It is important for us to show what a Latino hero looks like,” Deputy City Managing Director Joanna Otero-Cruz said, standing near the mural. “We are all wearing masks.”