Social distancing is a cinch for Big Josh. His enormous bearded face looms 20 feet above the parking lot of the Station, a quirky vintage decor and coffee shop housed in a former gas station in Joshua Tree, California. Even if Josh could cough, no one would risk infection unless they were standing on a ladder. Still, in March Josh donned a mask and gloves, modeling social responsibility to passing drivers.

Big Josh is a Muffler Man, one of roughly 180 around the country. The statues--typically square-jawed and virile--are among the most visible, attention-grabbing forms of advertising, and their owners often dress them to reflect the season or national mood. Not surprisingly, a number of businesses have decked out their Muffler Men in PPE--as role models, in the spirit of community, or just for giggles.

In the case of the Station, the mask and gloves "was our shout-out and thank-you to medical and frontline workers, and a reminder to everyone to be safe," says Glen Steigelman, who owns the business, which has been closed since March, with his husband, Steve Halterman.

The first Muffler Man was erected in 1962 in front of Paul Bunyan's Café in Flagstaff, Arizona. For about a decade, the figures proliferated around the country, with a concentration along Route 66. They were popular with auto-repair shops, and often posed gripping mufflers (hence their name). But they also drew customers to burger joints, miniature golf courses, souvenir shops, carpet stores, and drive-ins.

"Everyone had neon signs, but then along came these fiberglass giants that could be customized for whatever business you had," says Joel Baker, owner of American Giants, a Denver-based company that repairs, fabricates, and helps potential buyers locate Muffler Men. "Tourists and road travelers would stop and then, boom, it took off."

In the 1970s, the Muffler Men's popularity declined. The figures had begun to show wear and tear, and cities condemned them as eyesores. Meanwhile, increased trucking regulation made them much more expensive to ship. 

Then, in the '90s, Roadside America, a guide to offbeat tourist attractions that has produced two books and a website, renewed interest in the figures. Since then, Baker says, "they've made a huge comeback." 

Towering role models

Penny and Tony Caciolo found their Muffler Man in a junkyard in Canada in 2019. He was in bad shape, so the couple shipped him to a fiberglass specialist in Virginia. The specialist created molds and fabricated a replica, adding a white cap to his head and replacing the muffler with a plus-size ice cream scoop and chocolate cone. Now Chip welcomes customers to the Inside Scoop, the Caciolos' 11-year-old ice cream parlor in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania.

The idea to give Chip a mask came from a customer. An employee's father-in-law, who is a tailor, sewed the mask from tarp; it ties around Chip's head with bungee cords. Since the mask went on the number of people stopping for photos has increased, and positive messages have flooded in over email and Facebook.

"He's kind of a role model," Penny Caciolo says. "My employees have to do it, so Chip is going to do it."

Nick Manning also expects his Muffler Man to wear the mask as long as his workers wear theirs. Manning is the owner of Joor Muffler & Complete Auto Service, a 92-year-old business in Escondido, California. Joor Man has fronted the shop since the early 1960s. "Joor Man is an Escondido icon," says Manning, who bought the business in 2005. "There are murals of him on walls around town."

When the pandemic struck, Manning spent $250 to hire an upholstery company to create a mask out of vinyl, using the beard from Joor Man's Santa costume, which he wears in December, to get the right dimensions. An anchoring mechanism made for his beard keeps the mask in place.

"People see we took the time and effort to build this big mask," Manning says. "It reminds them that this is important."

A big message for a small town

Steigelman and Halterman stumbled across Big Josh--a cowboy--at a flea market in 2017. They raised him in front of the Station and immediately drew traffic. Baseball teams, prom couples, and Marines from a nearby base pose in front of Josh for photos. "He is our beacon," Steigelman says.

The Station's owners routinely decorate Big Josh for holidays: a Dracula mask and a pumpkin trick-or-treat basket at Halloween, an American flag for the Fourth of July. For the facemask, they split the sides of one of the store's tote bags and reinforced it with white duct tape. They wrapped Josh's hands with blue painter's tape to resemble latex gloves.

In addition to honoring health and frontline workers and lightening the mood, the owners want to remind people about safe practices. "The community is scared because everyone is coming in from the cities to our tiny town with its tiny hospital," Steigelman says. "We want to make sure we are part of the solution."

Just before Memorial Day, Steigelman and Halterman swapped out Josh's mask for a red bandana, made from a tablecloth. "The bandana is saying we are getting closer to the end," Steigelman says. "But we still need to keep covered."