Communities reframe mask debate into message of unity

In communities across the U.S., the debate over wearing masks at businesses has been divisive.
Workers at many Grand Haven businesses are wearing "For the Love of Grand Haven" masks.
In Grand Haven, leaders saw an opportunity to change attitudes by reframing the conversation down to a simple idea: love of community. 

“What ‘the why’ is, really, is the same thing that's always bound the community together, which is the love of where they live and their neighbors,” says Jen VanSkiver.

It’s not surprising that this professional communicator is leading the charge. VanSkiver is the Chief Communications Officer and Director of External Affairs for the North Ottawa Community Health System. Since the global pandemic became a public health concern in Michigan in March, she has been called on by local media to talk about the issue. 

She is credited with crafting a message that is resonating not only with Grand Haven but is spreading to neighboring communities and beyond. VanSkiver understood that words weren’t enough; they needed to be paired with an image that grabbed people’s attention. 

Safe, open for business

She reached out to Don Kalicz at Revel Marketing in Muskegon, a longtime collaborative partner with the hospital who has been involved in other grassroots efforts. Kalicz came up with the design element of a heart wearing a surgical mask, featuring the letters “GH,” for Grand Haven. 

Revel Marketing in Muskegon developed the logo.
“This logo communicates that, at present, wearing a mask is the best strategy we have to keep our community safe and open for business,” VanSkiver says. “The message is you're wearing a mask because you love your community and you want everything to remain open so you can enjoy them.”

Next, she approached Grand Haven Main Street, the community’s Downtown Development Authority. For businesses, the conflict was only extending their economic crisis. As VanSkiver puts it, public health and the economy are inextricably linked.

During that hour-long Zoom meeting, local merchants not only wholeheartedly signed on, but they crowdsourced instantaneously and soon had $5,000 to launch the project. Within two weeks of that meeting, the logo was printed on 1,500 reusable cloth face masks and given to “economic front-line workers” throughout the city’s business districts.

“In order to keep our businesses open, we needed to make this an economic message and less of a public health message that people were somehow politicizing as fearmongering or whatever else,” VanSkiver says. “We wanted it instead to be about something we all agree on, to keep our way of life, to keep our economy open, we want to keep our people working. So let's do what we need to do.”

Early success

So far, the campaign has been a success, says Grand Haven-area restaurateur Steve Loftis, owner of The Grand Seafood & Oyster Bar, Dee-Lite Bar & Grill, and Snug Harbor.

Leading the effort is the city of Grand Haven and the North Ottawa Community Health System. What made the mask campaign work was bringing in the hospital to help community leaders understand public health data to validate the strategy and timing. 

“We were expending a lot of energy, and it was really kind of taking our eye off the ball, which was the bigger protection role we play in the restaurant industry and finding some middle ground for the comfort and safety of our guests and employees,” Loftis says. “We were also trying to set an example that we could collaborate without arguing.”

Finding common ground

The goal is not to challenge viewpoints but to find common ground, explains Pat McGinnis, Grand Haven City Manager. 

Jen VanSkiver is the Chief Communications Officer and Director of External Affairs for the North Ottawa Community Health System.“Like every community, Grand Haven has its share of opposing viewpoints on lots of issues. But unlike many other communities, we also have a prolific history of coming together when it truly matters. Now is one of those times.”

The city welcomed the unification strategy by erecting banners and adopting messaging from commissioners at City Hall to the men and women of public safety out in the community.

Modeling behavior

Employees are wearing the masks as a show of unity, helping remind locals and visitors that masks protect each other’s health, as well as their jobs.

“We think it’s extremely important to model the behavior we need to see,” adds Jeremy Swiftney, Grand Haven Main Street Executive Director. “The logo is fun, light, disarming, and evokes inclusion. That’s why we are making it free to whoever wants to use it. We see this as a movement rather than a campaign, and want everyone to take ownership and spread goodwill at the grassroots level.”

The beauty of the campaign’s logo design is that the initials could be replaced with nearly anything. Within a week of debuting, the movement spread to neighboring Spring Lake and Ferrysburg, which have ordered versions of the mask, replacing GH with SL and FB.

“They were distributed to most of our Village businesses with donations many of them had made. Each business has their staff masking up with the masks and signs in their windows indicating that they are participating in the campaign,” says Village of Spring Lake Downtown Development Authority Director Angela Stanford-Butler.

Getting the message out

The goal is to make more masks and possibly print the logo on other items — such as window clings, bumper stickers or T-shirts — to get the message out. There’s been an overwhelming response on the For the Love of Community Facebook page from people asking for masks.

Restaurant workers are taking part in campaign encouraging everyone to wear masks.
To help the movement spread, Revel Marketing is providing the logo, as an in-kind donation to the effort. The firm is also offering versions that play on the theme, which can be used by citizens living anywhere, such as, “for the love of beer,” “for the love of sunsets,” “for the love of sushi,” and so on. 

VanSkiver likes the idea of the art and concept being free for everybody. She has received calls from as far as Ohio and Texas from people who want to use the campaign in their communities. 

A few weeks into this campaign, she can see how the “love your community” message is making a difference in Grand Haven. People, for example, are using the hashtag #GHLove and #forloveofcommunity on social media show their support. 

“Unity is what's really really needed right now. We don't have time to debate. We only have time to act.” 
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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.