In the spring of 2020, as COVID-19 spread throughout the world in ways not fully understood, the United States faced a critical shortage of protective masks.
Dozens of manufacturing startups attempted to meet the demand for what was then a confusing array of grades and types — N95, KN95, full-face respirators
Now, after a short respite from many COVID-19 precautions, the U.S. is weeks into a new surge in cases that may foreshadow a greater one this fall, and those same small companies that make masks are hurting.
John Bielamowicz is a co-founder of United States Mask. The Fort Worth, Texas, company is among those struggling.
Bielamowicz launched his mask-making mission after reading social media posts about medical professionals not having N95 masks in the pandemic's terrifying early months. It was caregivers like them who had helped his family in 2016, when his son Matthew was born missing 80% of his diaphragm on the left side.
Bielamowicz and his business partner David Baillargeon put their commercial real estate business on hold to start the mask company.
"This was our way of paying it back … for the gift that they gave us for sending us home with our son," Bielamowicz told VOA Mandarin in a virtual interview. "It was a debt that I never thought that I'd be able to pay back."
The partners began reading and experimenting in February 2020, and by late October of that year, their N95 masks carried a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health certification. At its peak in early 2021, the company produced millions of N95 masks a month and employed close to 50 people.
"For me and my family, this was a mission, and we were going to do it or fail trying," Bielamowicz said. "And we didn't fail. We did it."
Masks and jobs
The American Mask Manufacturers Association (AMMA) represents small companies that started making masks during the pandemic.
"During the pandemic, we created just over 8,000 new manufacturing jobs. And this was at a time where most businesses were laying people off or furloughing people," Lloyd Armbrust, president of the association, told VOA in a virtual interview.
But attitudes toward mask wearing have varied widely across the U.S. since 2020, and on April 18, a federal judge in Florida voided the national mask mandate covering airplanes and other public transportation. This came a day before the Biden administration said it would no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate.
Armbrust American, Armbrust's mask company in Pflugerville, Texas, staggered from the twin blows.
"That day, we saw our online sales be cut at half or even more," said Armbrust, who added that he and other mask makers had already been competing with cheap masks from China before the one-two punch.
China and masks
According to research published last year by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington-based think tank, 72% of the masks and respirators imported by the U.S. in 2019 came from China.
When the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was first identified in humans in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, U.S. imports of protective masks from China plunged.
When China resumed exporting government-subsidized masks in 2020, it attempted to create "a monopoly within the PPE (personal protective equipment) market," the AMMA charged, and manufacturers such as Armbrust American found themselves in difficulty.
"Our raw material costs me about $0.015 per mask," Armbrust said. "And yet China can deliver it to the United States for less than $0.01. They say that they're more efficient, but how is that possible when the cost of their finished products is cheaper than I buy the raw materials for? It's just not possible. The answer is, the Chinese government is subsidizing it because they don't want to lose this business."
In response to VOA Mandarin questions about China's mask exports to the U.S., Liu Pengyu, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said, "I would like to point out that as a market economy, China has earnestly fulfilled its WTO (World Trade Organization) commitments and abides by multilateral economic and trade rules. Chinese merchandise is cheap and good because of the good supply chain, sufficient competition and economies of scale, not nonmarket behavior."
An uncertain future
"I can be very competitive, but I can't be competitive against the whole government. … In 2021, we laid off about 70% of our staff," Armbrust said.
Bielamowicz's United States Mask laid off people as well.
"It was the worst day of my career," he said.
Nationwide, the AMMA, which peaked with almost 30 members in 2021, now includes fewer than 10 enterprises still producing masks.
Facing masks' uncertain future, Armbrust American shifted to producing home air filters.
Bielamowicz has been traveling to Washington to lobby the federal government.
"We're asking for free competition," Bielamowicz said. "We know the free market works."
That said, Armbrust hopes the government can subsidize small companies that make masks, as it does farmers, to preserve production capability so that when the next pandemic hits, the small producers can jump back into mask making.
"If I could just have a base," Armbrust said, " … where I could mothball these machines and … I could afford to pay the rent for the space instead of actually shutting it down and scrapping the machines, that would be another solution."