When the COVID-19 vaccines began rolling out in the U.S. earlier this year, there was quickly talk that one day — perhaps sooner than we'd ever thought — we'd be able to shed our masks after more than a year of wearing them whenever we left the house. While many people greeted this news with joy, I'm a little embarrassed now to admit that I was one of those who instead proudly proclaimed, "I'm never giving up my mask." As it turns out, "never" didn't last long at all.
In truth, I really didn't mind wearing a mask — especially in the winter months, when it not only kept my face warm and protected me from germs, but also, as an added bonus, was 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. While I definitely did not ceremoniously burn all my masks the day the CDC said it was okay for fully vaccinated people to no longer wear them, once the weather got warm, I began pulling my mask down, which eventually led to me keeping it on my wrist, then in my purse, then occasionally forgetting it altogether when I left home. My shift away from mask-wearing, which, though more gradual than it was for some, happened a lot more quickly than I anticipated, and made me wonder about other mask enthusiasts who had made even larger scale and more consequential investments in the mask game. What would become of mask companies?
As you likely remember, at the start of the pandemic, many apparel companies began funneling resources into making and selling masks. For those brands, pivoting all of that focus back to clothing and other accessories is likely as simple a shift as me once again thinking primarily about my going-out outfit rather than which of my masks is most appropriate for any of my given outings. But what about the companies that launched in direct response to COVID-19 and our country's sweeping mask mandates? You might think that the founders of these brands are among those who, like me (well, briefly, anyway), continuously preach: "Masks aren't going anywhere." But, that's not exactly the case.
"Basically every mask manufacturer, if they haven't shut down, 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, recently told me over the phone. "There are way too many masks in the world 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 contributed to a PPE shortage in America, which prompted Armbrust American to launch. Because his background is in enterprise sales, Armbrust initially intended for his company to primarily sell its masks to governments and hospitals, but when the first mask came off the assembly line on May 5, 2020, everyday consumers were also struggling to get their hands on protective masks. So he decided to create a way to serve that need as well. "I set up a website in like an hour, and we did $1 million in sales in the first 10 days," the founder says. "We limited it to one pack of masks per person, so that's individual sales to individual people." Armbrust also started the American Mask Manufacturer Association, which has 28 member companies. The requirements for being a member are that the company was started in response to the pandemic and is wholly based in the United States. Armbrust American and the other AMMA members answered a desperate call, but in the U.S., that call is no longer coming.
One reason for that is that China is back to exporting masks, which are cheaper than those manufactured in America. Because of that, Armbrust is glad he set up the company to sell directly to consumers. "It turns out hospitals and governments — our government even — don't have any interest in buying [products that are] made in America," he explains. "They say they do, they talk a great game, but at the end of the day, they're willing to take the subsidized Chinese government price for things. 3M makes it really easy to buy from China, and governments and hospitals are more than happy to take the easy route." But it isn't just prices that are affecting mask demands in the U.S.
"We saw steady growth through the end of last year. Then, January was flattish, February was flattish, and then we started seeing some decline," Armbrust says. "But it was literally a week after the CDC came out and said, 'Vaccinated people don't have to wear masks' that our sales just fell off a cliff." Just as he admits that he can't really blame hospitals for buying inexpensive Chinese-made masks when there's no incentive to buy from American manufacturers, Armbrust tells me that even he gets why individual consumers aren't buying as many masks these days. "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."
Just as so many companies in other industries pivoted when the pandemic hit, Armbrust American is now making its own pivot as more and more people are leaving masks behind. Though the founder says he can't say too much about the company's next move, he does share that it's targeting 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. An air system's filter was designed to protect the air system, not you. It was designed to keep big chunks of stuff out of the air system," Armbrust explains. "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 a mask for your house." Armbrust has long been anticipating that this would be the company's natural next step, which helped him prepare when the time came. "I didn't want to invest millions of dollars and then be left with my hat in hand when the pandemic ended," he says.
Armbrust insists that the company is very much in the beginning stages of that pivot, but it's clear he believes that's what it will take to survive post-Covid. Still, despite plainly stating that many mask companies are heading toward extinction, Armbrust also claims that a lasting cultural shift has occurred in the United States. "There's a social acceptance that has happened to masks that I think is good because there's a certain amount of hygiene that we just didn't have," he explains. "People are thinking more about what's in their air and what they're breathing now that they really understand some of the aerosol science around COVID." 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?" and "Is that good for us?"
Billy Smith, the co-founders of the design and product development company Bilio, and his brother Nick Smith, who oversees the company's business development and innovation, agree that the way Americans think about health and safety has forever changed, even if that doesn't mean masks will be an everyday staple moving forward. In 2015, after years of working in product design for companies like Patagonia and Apple, Billy launched Bilio to design innovative soft goods. While Bilio mostly worked with clients, including Allbirds and Steelcase, the Smith brothers and their team had long had their sights set on creating and selling their very own products as Bilio Brands. For around four years, they had been working toward launching a knit bag, and according to Nick, that was the plan for 2020. Then, of course, the pandemic hit. "It was almost like a call to action. We had all the materials, the know-how, the team," he tells me over Zoom. "It was a great effort, banding together to create a solution... The whole ecosystem was created in less than 10 days."
Though the Smiths admit they probably wouldn't have chosen masks as the product with which they established Bilio as a brand if it hadn't been for the pandemic, they do think that masks will continue to be used by Americans, both because masks have become socially acceptable and because many people now recognize that masks do protect against more than just Covid — ash, smoke, pollution, allergens, germs, you name it. And, Bilio is shifting its design to accommodate those many different uses. "There are a lot of mass discussions going on beyond just the pandemic, especially in California because we have wildfires every year. That's 34 million people that are affected by that," Billy says. "We would like to give the consumer the ability to choose why they wear the masks."
Even so, Bilio won't only be making masks forever, and they're now exploring how they can adapt the designed material used in their masks to create other products. "What we've created is the textile as well as the mask. We can now use that IP to generate new discussions around what we can do for potentially, let's say, a sleep mask, a bra, or something else," Billy explains.
Of all the mask companies I spoke to, HALOLIFE seemed the most insistent that masks are here to stay. That outlook appears to be based on its global roots and mission. While the mask technology used by HALOLIFE was created in 2017 to help protect children and commuters from severe air pollution on the streets of Southeast Asia, the company itself was founded in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. According to Terry Torok, a spokesperson for HALOLIFE, the brand experienced "robust" mask sales through May 2021, and masks will continue to be one of the company's core offerings. Still, their global perspective has led them to adjust a bit. "We recognized a growing disparity among the underserved communities of the world for access to quality masks," says Torok. "This led us to create impact initiatives with organizations including Save The Children, Enactus, and Yamba Malawi." Part of the brand's mission now is to provide high-quality masks to "at-risk communities and children around the world in times of fires, pandemic, and other unforeseen challenges." This all goes back to what these mask companies and so many of us in the United States now realize after having our lives altered by the COVID-19 pandemic: unforeseen challenges are very real, and masks can play a role in how we approach many of them.
"Unfortunately, the world continues to experience new virus strains, including the delta strain," Torok tells me. "It often goes unreported that airborne toxins and air pollution are leading causes of death in the world. This is compounded by devastating wildfires as an effect of climate change. Everyone should have at least a six-pack of reusable masks in every vehicle as well as masks ready in every office, school, and public venue. Our goal at HALOLIFE is to help prepare the world for this new future with full-spectrum protection that's cool and comfortable."
Armbrust has a similar perspective on masks. "I think it's like a fire extinguisher," he says. "You should have a fire extinguisher in your house and then, every two years, you should get a new one, right? I think everyone should also have a pack of surgical masks and probably five or 10 N95 masks."
Billy Smith agrees, "There's a reason why masks exist, and I think the way we use them is going to continue to evolve over time."