Dozens of people have participated in the #whoamimaskchallenge so far. Image courtesy William Lucas

[Episcopal News Service] In July, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, William Lucas was feeling exasperated – not just by the constant angst of the pandemic itself, but by Americans’ failure to take the simple step of consistently wearing masks to contain the virus.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield had just said that “if we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I think in four, six, eight weeks we could bring this epidemic under control,” yet Lucas was still seeing too many people refusing to wear one, and not enough national leadership on the issue.

“As someone who works in the entertainment field, by mid-summer I found myself a little puzzled, still waiting for the national, coordinated PR campaign around mask-wearing that wasn’t happening,” Lucas said.

A friend of his was feeling the same way and posted about it on Facebook.

“And she, basically, in her Facebook post said, ‘Where the hell is the big Hollywood mask campaign they should have rolled out months ago, with all these movie stars telling people to put on a mask?’” Lucas said. So he decided to start one.

Lucas, a member of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, is a veteran TV writer, having worked on shows like “Roseanne,” “Frasier” and “Will & Grace.” He’s also the creator of the #WhoAmIMaskChallenge, a social media drive to encourage people to wear masks, which he initially envisioned as a series of quick TV PSAs.

“I immediately saw, in my head, a man in a mask – and, of course, you couldn’t tell who it was because I can’t even tell who my children are in a mask,” Lucas told Episcopal News Service. “And this title comes over his face and it says, ‘Who am I?’ And he slowly looks into the camera, takes his mask off and gives you his big smile, and it’s Denzel Washington. And in 15 to 20 seconds he tells you why he wears a mask. He doesn’t beg you to wear a mask, he just tells you why he wears a mask.”

He knew it would take too long to get major stars on board – and that they are bombarded with requests to do videos like these – so he decided to start smaller and make it a grassroots social media campaign. The formula is simple: You record a brief video of yourself, in a mask, holding up a sign with the hashtag on it, then remove your mask and say a few words about what motivates you to wear one. You post it on your social media accounts tagging five friends, challenging them to do the same.

 

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A post shared by Who Am I? Mask Challenge (@whoamimaskchallenge) on Aug 23, 2020 at 3:50pm PDT

To make people more likely to do it, he kept it as simple as possible.

“Everybody’s got two minutes,” he said. “What else are you doing?”

He was partially inspired by the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014, which may have started among members of a small church in Georgia, who then challenged other churches to do it. Seeing that congregations may be ideal communities for social media challenges like this, Lucas enlisted the leadership of All Saints, where he has been worshipping since 1994 and where he met his husband 21 years ago. Now some of the videos are being shared on their social media accounts, and Lucas will introduce everyone to the challenge at their homecoming Sunday Zoom service. He’s also shared it with a priest friend in Northern California, who has challenged his congregation.

But he’s also reaching out through his connections in Hollywood and Broadway. Lucas is friends with the mother of pop star Billie Eilish, who may do a video at some point. It turns out her mother has enough social media followers – mostly fans of her daughter – that the video she did is already gaining traction through them. Actors Beau Bridges and Bryan Batt are among the celebrities who have done videos so far, and more are coming.

“As I realized it was a social media campaign, I thought, well, it can be everybody but if a few celebrities will do it, that’ll give it the spotlight it needs.”

He’s showcasing videos of some well-known faces alongside everyday people on the website and Instagram page to prove the point that everyone is vulnerable to COVID-19 and everyone wants it to end as soon as possible.

Of the dozens of videos he’s seen, Lucas said he’s interested to hear the different reasons people give for wearing masks. “No two are alike,” he told ENS.

“It’s fast, it’s easy – it’s so easy to do,” he said. “My goal is that eight weeks from now, you won’t be able to go anywhere on Instagram or Facebook without seeing somebody taking off their mask and tell you why they wear it. Not berating you, just telling you why. Because nobody can argue with you telling them why you wear a mask! This is not an argument, just a conversation.”

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.

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