COVID-19

COVID-19 draws apparel manufacturers into the surgical mask business

Marielle Segarra Mar 24, 2020
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A shortage of surgical face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has some unexpected manufacturers stepping up. Scott Heins/Getty Images
COVID-19

COVID-19 draws apparel manufacturers into the surgical mask business

Marielle Segarra Mar 24, 2020
A shortage of surgical face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has some unexpected manufacturers stepping up. Scott Heins/Getty Images
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Last week, Kathlin Argiro, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the chief product officer at Altress, a small dressmaking company, got a request from a local hospital in New York City. The hospital wanted to know whether Altress could make surgical masks.

Around the country, hospitals have been running dangerously low on medical supplies — in particular, protective gear like face masks. Doctors and nurses have been reusing the same mask for days and cobbling masks together out of office supplies.  

Argiro’s company pivoted. It’ll make 1,000 masks this week. 

“The masks themselves are actually pretty easy to make, especially for an experienced sewer, they’re really quite simple,” Argiro said.

Thing is, the Altress team usually works together. One person cuts, another sews, another assembles. But since they’re working from home, “every sewer is doing every part of the process,” Argiro said.

“So that is a huge challenge. It’s just the logistics of having to sew in this way is not efficient at all.”

Altress. Hanes. The fashion designer Christian Siriano. And lots of smaller apparel companies. They’re all getting into the mask-making business.

But surgical masks are not the ideal protection for health care workers treating COVID patients. They often need heavier duty masks, N95s, which are in very short supply right now and are harder to make. 

Manufacturers need special material, a type of polypropylene. And they need certain equipment, too.

“One of the key things is you need the machines to actually make them and one of the machines that can actually take polypropylene and convert it into the mask,” said Yogesh Bahl, a managing director at Alix Partners.

The companies that make N95s, like 3M and Honeywell, are ramping up production. It’s not yet clear whether they’ll be able to meet demand. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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