The COVID-19 vaccinations started rolling out in the U.S. earlier this year. There was quick talk that we would be able to throw away our masks after more than a year of wearing them every day. Many people welcomed this news with joy. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I proudly declared, “I’m not giving up my mask!” It turned out that “never” was not a lasting statement.
To be honest, I didn’t mind wearing one, especially during winter when it kept my face warm and protected me against germs. It also served as a cute accessory. In fact, I felt I had fully adapted to wearing one, but here I am, four months post-vax, and I truly don’t know what I was thinking when I made such a bold proclamation. Although I did not burn all my masks on the day the CDC stated that it was OK for fully vaccinated persons to stop wearing them, once it got warmer, I started pulling down my mask. This eventually led me to keeping it on my wrist and then in my purse. Sometimes, it would go missing when I went to work. Although my shift from mask-wearing was more gradual than I expected, it happened much faster than I thought. It made me wonder about other mask lovers who made larger and more consequential investments in this industry. What would happen to mask companies?
Many apparel companies started investing in mask-making and sales at the beginning of the pandemic. The brands that have shifted all their focus to accessories and clothing are likely to find it as easy as me thinking about my “going-out” outfit, rather than the mask that is best suited for my outings. What about those companies that were founded in response to COVID-19, our country’s strict mask mandates? It might seem that these brand founders are like me, who repeatedly preach “Masks won’t go anywhere” as if they were. However, this is not the truth.
“Basically, every mask manufacturer, if it hasn’t shut down yet, they just don’t know that they’re already dead yet,” Lloyd Armbrust, founder and CEO of Armbrust American, a U.S-based medical-grade surgical-mask manufacturer, told me recently over the phone. “There are far too many masks out there right now.”
Before the pandemic, most of America’s N95 masks, including those sold by large companies like 3M and Honeywell, were manufactured in factories outside of the U.S. In early 2020, as China, the biggest manufacturer of masks in the world, was dealing with its COVID crisis, the country decided to suspend masks exports. This led to a shortage of PPE in America and Armbrust American was born. Armbrust’s background in enterprise sales meant that his company was initially designed to sell masks only to hospitals and governments. However, when the first mask left the assembly line on May 5, 2020 everyday consumers found themselves struggling to find protective masks. He decided to make a website to meet that need. The founder said that he set up the website in less than an hour and sold $1 million within the first 10 days. “We restricted it to one pack per person so that each individual can have masks for personal use only.” Armbrust also founded the American Mask Manufacturer Association (28 member companies). A member must be founded in response to the pandemic, and be based entirely in the United States. Armbrust American and other AMMA members responded to a desperate call. However, in the U.S. that call is not coming back.
China is now exporting masks again, and they are much cheaper than American-made masks. Armbrust is happy that he created the company to directly sell to consumers because of this. He explains that hospitals and government – even our government – have no interest in purchasing products made in America. They say they do, and they make a lot of great claims, but they are willing to pay the Chinese government subsidised price for everything. 3M makes it easy to purchase from China. Governments and hospitals will gladly take the easy way. It’s not just the price that is affecting American mask demand.
“We saw steady growth throughout the last year. Armbrust explains that January was flattish in February, then it was flattish in January, and then there was some decline. It was only a week after CDC announced that ‘vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks’, that our sales fell off a cliff.” Armbrust says that even though he acknowledges that hospitals can buy cheap masks made in China, he doesn’t think it’s fair to blame them for not buying masks from American producers. “It makes sense because I will tell you, as somebody that has spent the last year building a mask factory faster than people said it could be done, I personally, .after getting vaccinated, have forgotten my mask when I go to the local grocery store.”
Armbrust American, like many other companies in other industries that pivoted when the pandemic struck, is now making its own turn as more people leave behind their masks. Although the founder won’t reveal much more about the company’s future plans, he did say that the company is focusing on home air filtration. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that the best filter that you can buy for your house only filters 20% to 30% of virus particulates that you need to be worried about. The filter in an air system was created to protect it, not you.” Armbrust explained that the filter was created to keep large chunks of stuff out from the air system. “Fortunately, new technology was developed in 2018 that we have built into our mask technology, which allows your system to push more air more freely and filter more air. It’s like having a mask on your face. Armbrust knew from the beginning that this would be the next natural step for the company, and it helped him to prepare when the time came. He says, “I didn’t want to invest millions and then be left holding my hat when the pandemic was over.”
Armbrust claims that the company is still in the early stages of this pivot. However, it is clear that he believes that that’s what the company will need to survive post-Covid. Armbrust claims that the United States has seen a cultural shift, even though he clearly stated that mask companies are on the verge of extinction. He says that masks have gained acceptance in America. “There is a certain level of hygiene that we didn’t have before.” “People are more aware of what’s in their lungs and how they breathe now that they have a better understanding of COVID science.” This shift is what makes the planned pivot to air filtration viable because, according to Armbrust, more everyday Americans are now asking themselves, “What are we breathing?” “Is it good for us?”
Co-founders of Bilio Design and Product Development, Billy Smith and Nick Smith (who oversees the company’s business development, innovation, and marketing), agree that Americans have changed the way they think about safety and health. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that masks will become an everyday item. After years of experience in product design at companies such as Apple and Patagonia, Billy founded Bilio to create innovative soft goods. Although Bilio worked mostly with clients like Allbirds or Steelcase, the Smith brothers, along with their team, had always wanted to create and sell their own products under the name Bilio Brands. They had been working for four years to launch a knit bag. Nick says that this was their goal for 2020. The pandemic struck. It was almost like a call for action. He explains to me via Zoom that we had all the necessary materials, the knowhow, and the team. “It was a tremendous effort to work together and create a solution. In less than 10 days, the entire ecosystem was built.”
Although the Smiths acknowledge that they wouldn’t have picked masks to launch Bilio, but they believe masks will be popular in America because they are socially accepted and masks can protect against other things than Covid. Bilio is changing its design to suit these many uses. “There are mass discussions that go beyond the pandemic. California is a great example of this. We have yearly wildfires.” According to Billy, that’s 34 million people who are affected. “We want to allow the consumer to choose the reason they wear the masks.
Bilio will continue to make masks, but they are also exploring ways they can use the material they have created in their masks to make other products. “What we have created is both the textile and the mask. “We can now use this IP to generate new conversations around what we could do for potentially, lets say, a sleeping mask, a bra or something else,” Billy says.
Of all the mask companies I spoke to, HALOLIFE seemed the most insistent that masks are here to stay. This outlook seems to be rooted in its global roots and mission. HALOLIFE’s mask technology was developed in 2017 to protect commuters and children from the severe air pollution in Southeast Asia. However, HALOLIFE itself was established in March 2020 to combat the pandemic. Terry Torok, spokesperson for HALOLIFE said that the brand saw “robust” sales of masks through May 2021. Masks will remain one of the company’s core offerings. Their global perspective has led them a little to adapt. Torok says, “We saw a growing gap among the underserved community of the world for accessing quality masks.” “This led us to create impact initiatives with organizations including Save The Children, .Enactus, and .Yamba Malawi.” The brand’s current mission is to supply high-quality masks to children and communities at risk in times of disasters such as fires and pandemics. All of this is a reflection of what mask companies, as well as many Americans, now know after experiencing the COVID-19 Pandemic. Unexpected challenges are very real and masks can help us approach them.
Torok told me that the world is still suffering from new virus strains, including the “delta” strain. It is often not reported that airborne toxins, and pollution are the leading causes of death worldwide. This is compounded by devastating wildfires as an effect of climate change. “Everybody should carry at least six packs of reusable masks in their vehicle. There should also be masks available for use in all offices, schools, and public venues. HALOLIFE’s goal is to prepare the world for a new future by providing full-spectrum protection that is comfortable and cool.”
Armbrust shares a similar view on masks. He says, “It’s almost like a fire extinguisher.” You should keep a fire extinguisher in every room of your home and replace it every two years. Everyone should have at least five to ten N95 masks, and a set of surgical masks.”
Billy Smith concurs, “There is a reason masks exist. I believe the way we use them will continue to evolve.”