EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Local theater members have shifted their focus from creating costumes to making face masks in an effort to combat COVID-19.

The grassroots work to create homemade masks is occurring across the country, and the Chippewa Valley citizens recently began helping by creating masks that follow guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the Eau Claire Children's Theatre, four employees are coordinating their efforts to create face masks after encouragement from a health care worker who also helps out at the ECCT.

Ann Behrens, ECCT costume shop manager, called it an easy decision to help with a lifesaving measure.

A main CDC guideline involves using pieces of tightly woven, cotton-based fabric, and the theater is well-stocked with the requisite supplies.

Allie Kangas, ECCT costume designer, made a few masks on a recent Friday and is now working as the second part of the mask-making process.

"We're providing our skills and talents to do something that is going to be helpful in this crazy health crisis that we're experiencing," Kangas told the Leader-Telegram.

Creating a face mask involves several steps and takes around 20 minutes to finish, according to ECCT employees. It starts with intern Megan Murphy taking an 8-by-14-inch piece of cotton fabric and folding it in half while also stitching the edge closed. She then gives it to Kangas, who irons the fabric flat, pleats it and pins it. Kangas hands the material to either Behrens or costumer designer Jackson Berhow, who use sewing machines to stitch the edges together, add straps and bind the edge with bias tape to complete the mask.

None of them had created masks before, but it was a fairly easy process to learn after making one or two. As of late morning on March 24, they had made about 40 masks and had an additional 50 in production. The completed masks were laid out on a table with a wide array of hues and patterns, including solid colors; red white and blue; a pink strawberry shortcake design; and a mint chocolate theme made of light green and brown fabric.

The masks will be donated to the community at a Festival Foods drop location. It is uncertain exactly who will use the masks, but they should eventually aid someone who needs them, be it a health care worker, patient or grocery store employee. The homemade masks are more effective than a bandanna or scarf, which some locations might have to resort to because of the shortage of masks nationwide.

Many other people in the community are making face masks. A Facebook group called Mask Beez originated the idea locally, and another group named Sew the Curve Flat is contributing similar efforts. Anyone with sewing experience and a sewing machine can provide assistance and drop the masks off at a local Festival Foods.

It is not known how long the costume employees will be able to create the masks at the Children's Theatre's office and rehearsal space. Wayne Marek, ECCT executive director, said core employees will remain in the building as a result of an order from Gov. Tony Evers mandating that all non-essential workers stay home.

The office is already essentially closed to the public, as the ECCT has postponed all performances until at least May. Marek said there are four performances in different stages of production, and the people involved will try to progress without meeting in-person, but the uncertainty presents difficulties.

The effort to create homemade masks appears to be happening all over the nation. Murphy has friends and family in Maryland and West Virginia who inquired about proper procedures to make masks. Berhow hails from Washington state and said friends and relatives asked him about creating them.

"This has really become a nationwide project," Berhow said.

For as long as they are able, the ECCT employees will do whatever they can to provide assistance.

"The world is so scary outside, it felt good to do something that was helpful," Murphy said.