Austin (KXAN) — At the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (known as the ARCH), you’ll now see staff members and people experiencing homelessness sporting a similar look: purple bandannas tied over their noses and mouths.

They’ve had these bandanas since late last week, staff members tell KXAN that the bandanas are more comfortable to wear than medical-grade masks

Front Steps, the organization that operates the ARCH, tells KXAN the bandannas are part of an effort to protect service workers and clients in a way that doesn’t use up any additional medical-grade masks which could go to healthcare providers.

Staff members at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless wear bandannas as they check the temperature of a person experiencing homelessness entering the shelter. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“Our staff have been doing some homework, and are making the choice to use bandannas (yes, we ordered hundreds of purple bandannas) as an affordable and manageable safety option,” Front Steps posted on Facebook Wednesday.

The post went on to explain that staff members had observed that the Czech Republic made a requirement two weeks ago for the public to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. (BBC News reports that Austria, Slovakia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also made masks mandatory.)

According to the website for the Ministry of Health of the Czech Republic, the number of confirmed cases in the country is 3,604. The Czech Republic says 61 patients have been “cured,” 60,990 have been tested, and 40 have died. The country has a population of 10.7 million. The percentage of the Czech population that has died of COVID-19 is 0.00037%.

The U.S., by comparison, has a population of about 330 million and has 213,144 COVID-19 cases and 4,513 deaths as of the time of this article. The percent of the U.S. population that has died of COVID-19 is around 0.0014%.

Front Steps believe that face coverings, which many in the Czech Republic have been able to make from materials people already have in their homes, could help slow the spread of the virus.

Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, seems to agree, he posted on Twitter Sunday telling President Donald Trump to “try tackling virus the Czech way” with a cloth mask.

According to UN News, after the Czech Republic made a requirement to have facial coverings, “it soon became clear that there were not enough masks for essential workers, such as health professionals, the police, and the fire brigade” and community members have been stepping up to make masks by the hundreds of thousands.

Front Steps also noted that in many Asian countries that have had success controlling the virus, masks are strongly encouraged and socially normalized.

To avoid taking away masks from anyone else, the Front Steps team plans to stick with bandannas. The bandannas have been so popular, some people experiencing homelessness have taken to wearing them as well.

Front Steps is opting for bandannas at a time when the CDC is reviewing its prior guidelines which discouraged anyone who was not sick or not caring for a sick person from wearing masks. Austin Public Health told KXAN Thursday that it is still following the CDC’s mask guidelines. However, APH noted it is “looking into additional local recommendations regarding the use of face masks when leaving your residence. We will continue to provide updates as necessary.”

Staff members at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless wearing purple bandannas. Photo Courtesy Front Steps Facebook Page.

“With all due respect to the CDC, I think that we ought to just give everybody a bandanna or a cloth, get it on their face, and we can see that we can manage this thing just like some of these other countries have done,” said Greg Liotta, the Assistant Director of Shelter Operations for Front Steps. Liotta said that wearing the bandanna has been helpful for him to avoid touching his face.

“It’s not all the same gear that’s being given to medical professionals, but its protective and that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

Liotta goes outside and to speak with people experiencing homelessness in Austin each day about COVID-19 and what protections they can take against the virus. He explained that for the past three weeks, providing services through the ARCH has been ever-changing in light of COVID-19.

Liotta said that staff has spaced out the chairs in the resource center and the beds where people sleep so that there is more room for clients to social distance. But he noted, the staff can’t always maintain a six-foot distance away from clients.

People experiencing homelesness wait to enter the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

“To understand something about this population, the average person experiencing homelessness does not experience a lot of closeness,  most people avoid making eye contact with them, they don’t want to touch them,” Liotta said. “When they come in here, we really do regard them as human beings that need closeness, even just to be able to look them in the face, to look them in the eyes, to maybe pat them on the shoulder or the arm, maybe to help them to get up out of a wheelchair or maybe to guide them someplace.”

Now in the age of COVID-19, Liotta said, many people experiencing homelessness the ARCH works with have faced increased anxiety as a result of inability to get things like mail, medications, or services.

He believes that when it comes to COVID-19, “the first population that will be impacted by this crisis are the most vulnerable ones that are already out there on the street, they are being impacted whether they know it or not.” 

Homeless shelters fall under the category of essential activities, so the ARCH continues to operate, though with a reduced staff and with a pared-down number of clients. Prior to COVID-19 ARCH staff say they were taking in between 200 and 300 people a day for client services, like picking up mail or accessing the internet. Now, the ARCH has made the decision to restrict its intake to one hundred or so men who have been staying in the emergency shelter space.

A single-bed quarantine room set up at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack explained that the shelter is also exempt from the only-ten-people-can-be-together-at-one-time rule. Front Steps staff are still talking to and providing resources for the people who sleep outside downtown in the area near the ARCH, the staff is just limiting who can come inside during this time.

Additionally, the ARCH has set up one single bed quarantine room and one quarantine room with multiple beds to have a safe space ready for clients who may show symptoms of COVID-19 but may be waiting for medical care. Recently, the ARCH also began doing temperature checks for every person who enters their shelter.

McCormack explained that “a couple” clients at the ARCH had a cough and were sent to the city’s new isolation facility. He said those people have since been tested and are awaiting results.

“Our goal is always twofold: to keep our staff safe and keep the clients safe, and every action we take that’s what were trying do,” said Front Steps Executive Director Greg McCormack.