Darlene Burton's 'mask tree' empties each time she restocks it

If you live in Kensington, maybe you’ve seen it. A lush tree decorated not with changing autumn colors, but with blue and white face masks.

Harrowgate resident and North Philadelphia native Darlene Burton is responsible for the unusual-looking tree. She created the free-to-take installation to combat the feeling of powerlessness brought on by the resurging coronavirus pandemic.

“I hate to feel helpless,” Burton explained. “I figured if I can just help in some way with COVID, it will make me feel better as a community member.”

Burton first put up the masks last Thursday. The very next day, her daughter, a phlebotomist who works in a local hospital, was diagnosed with the coronavirus. That only strengthened her resolve.

“It just made me turn into mama bear mode,” said the 50-year-old mother and grandmother.

A few other mask trees and free outdoor mask dispensaries have popped up around Philly. The Fishtown Free Mask Project pinned some free, two-layer sewn masks to shrubbery on Amber Street. Sew Face Masks Philadelphia co-founder Eugene Desyatnik said there’s another outdoor distribution depot in Bella Vista at 6th and Fitzwater, and there’d also been one at a library branch in West Philly.

Apparently hanging masks from trees is big in the U.K. too. An org called Community Mask Trees hosts an interactive map with more than 420 locations that have distributed more than 200k masks as of early September, according to its website.

Since launching the effort last week on what Burton said is the only full-grown greenery on her block, she’s restocked the tree three times, carefully suspending 30 individual masks, each tucked into a Ziploc bag to keep it clean.


She started by ordering 150 masks and other supplies on Amazon. A neighbor donated 50 masks and a neighboring pizza shop has also reached out to donate, Burton said.

Philly’s windy weather recently is all that hindered her from restocking more often — because by the end of each day, she’s found the tree bare.

The Harrowgate neighborhood in the city’s 19134 ZIP code has seen a 10% coronavirus positivity test rate in the last two weeks, per Philadelphia Health Department data. By that metric, it’s not one of the city’s worst areas right now, but the neighborhood is sandwiched between bad spots. To its north and northeast are ZIPs that have recording positivity rates between 15% and 20% recently.

To mitigate the spread, city officials announced coronavirus restrictions Monday that will bring an end to indoor dining, indoor gym activities and movie theaters, and reduce capacity limits come Friday.

Burton welcomes the restrictions. “I follow science, not fiction,” she said.

City data shows mask use inside retail spaces — which is supposed to be mandatory — has declined slightly, to about 84% compliance since reaching an all-time high of 96% at the end of August.

Burton, who works helping residents enroll in the new state-run health insurance marketplace, Pennie, said she’s made COVID-19 mitigation a personal mission.

“I tell everybody I come in contact with to wear a mask,” Burton said. “I see a lot of people who in this neighborhood walk past maskless. And it’s not that they maybe don’t want to wear a mask. Maybe they can’t afford it.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...