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Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘Pretty much everyone has them on sale’: The nationwide rush to buy face masks is finally over

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When public-health officials began recommending Americans wear face masks as the number of coronavirus surged last spring, Dawn Mauberret opted to put her sewing skills to use.

She was a huge fan of Orville Peck, the gay country singer who was known for wearing a face mask covered in fringe even before the COVID-19 pandemic, so she set out to create her own Orville Peck-inspired face covering.

“I posted to Instagram
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thinking it was just kind of silly, and then a couple of friends asked me to make them their own,” Mauberret said. “Then it just kind of snowballed.”

Mauberret quickly set up an online shop on Shopify
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as she found herself selling anywhere from 50 to 100 masks in a single day. The side hustle became an unexpected blessing — Mauberret works as a wedding and event planner in New York City, and the pandemic triggered a massive wave of cancellations.


‘I’m still getting orders at least once a day.’


— Dawn Mauberret, a wedding planner who has sold over 4,000 fringed masks over the past year.

“My wedding season pretty much evaporated,” Mauberret said. “It went from a year of the highest projected number of weddings to absolutely zero.”

As of last month, she had sold 4,000 masks. The proceeds from those sales helped to put a dent into the income loss she experienced from last year’s cancelled events. A year later, she’s still making masks, even though the wedding industry in New York is preparing to return to full swing.

“I keep expecting for sales to slow down. I always say, ‘I guess I can start doing clearance and take down the site,’ and then I get a rush of orders,” Mauberret said. “I’m still getting orders at least once a day, which really kind of surprised me.”

While Mauberret and other sellers have seen demand for face masks retreat from the highs of last year, it still remains elevated. And some analysts believe that Americans will continue to buy face masks well into next year, even as the threat of COVID-19 diminishes.

Price cuts, falling sales and waning interest

The country’s successful vaccination push thus far has led to a significant reduction in demand for face masks, according to the most recent data. Online marketplace Etsy
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has seen masks go from representing 14% of gross merchandise sales in the second quarter of 2020 to just 2.5% in the first quarter of 2021.

At Amazon
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search data suggests a sudden drop in demand for face masks that began in mid-March and has continued as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has signaled more lax policies for vaccinated people.

For most of 2020, face masks were the No. 1 most-searched products on Amazon. As of May 15, they had dropped to No. 50 in the search rankings, said Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder and CEO of e-commerce business intelligence firm Marketplace Pulse.

“Face masks have been one of the most in-demand products on Amazon since January 2020,” Kaziukėnas said.


‘Pretty much everyone has them on sale.’


— Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consulting firm A-Line Partners

Another sign that demand is falling: Price cuts. A wide range of retailers from Five Below
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to Old Navy
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to Nordstrom
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have begun reduced the price of masks.

“Pretty much everyone has them on sale,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consulting firm A-Line Partners. “It seems like the retailers have anticipated a decline in mask wearing so if they’re bringing in any new masks inventory is limited.”

Mask sales appear to be falling as vaccination rates are rising. In recent months, the number of Americans inoculated against COVID-19 has skyrocketed.

Currently, more than 160 million Americans, or 49% of the country’s population, have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Among Americans ages 65 and older, 74% are fully vaccinated.

In recent weeks, public-health officials have signaled that people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus can stop wearing masks in their daily lives, except for in a handful of circumstances such as when traveling on public transit and visiting museums.

An increase in PPE shipments

Yet, there is also evidence that runs counter to this generally-held wisdom that mask demand will continue to fall. Research from trade data company Panjiva
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shows that U.S. imports of personal protective equipment or PPE rose by more than 26% between February and March 2021 to the highest level since September, primarily led by record-high imports of rubber gloves.

Among those shipments, however, Panjiva’s data do show that imports of masks have fallen to near pre-pandemic levels, but American mask manufacturers suggest that the face mask market is being hurt by Chinese companies.

The American Mask Manufacturers Association, a group of 26 small businesses that produce face coverings, allege that Chinese manufacturers are dumping masks in the U.S. at prices below the material costs. The organization warns the practice could lead U.S. companies to cut production by as much as 85% over the next year.

Analysis from Panjiva suggests that the falling price of masks, triggered by the wave of Chinese masks coming into the U.S., may also explain some of the broader decline in mask imports, given the market has become less lucrative for manufacturers as it was at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some folks will continue wearing masks

Analysis from Polaris Market Research, a business research company based in the U.S. and India, paints a more complicated pictures. It suggests that the face-mask market will continue steadily growing into 2022, before declining in 2023 and onward. Polaris’ projections were based, in part, on data the firm collects directly from mask manufacturers in the U.S.

To an extent, the growing market reflects the continued need for PPE in the health-care sector, as doctors and nurses will need to continue protecting themselves from potential exposure to COVID-19.

The unpredictable nature of the virus is another factor: Concerns linger about potential mutations in the virus and the possible need for booster shots of the various vaccines available to keep people inoculated.


‘There will be a decline in demand, but the market will be steadily growing.’


— Rohan Khade, research head at Polaris Market Research

All of these factors have influenced Americans’ attitude toward face masks. “There is a mixed feeling in the U.S. market as per our understanding,” said Rohan Khade, research head at Polaris. “There will be a decline in demand, but the market will be steadily growing.”

For Melissa Camire and her family, getting vaccinated won’t mean an immediate end to wearing face masks. Camire, 45, works part time for Hallmark Cards, and her job involves going into stores like Walgreens
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Walmart
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and CVS
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Although fully vaccinated, she continues to wear a mask on the job. She has asthma, and her child had a heart procedure in recent years, putting them both in a higher-risk category for COVID.

After a year of wearing masks, the family has begun to see benefits beyond protecting themselves from the coronavirus — especially during cold and flu season, given that Melissa’s wife Amy is a teacher.

“With two people in schools, we tend to catch just about everything that goes around, and feel that masks will definitely help with preventing the pass the potato we do every year,” Camire said.

Infectious-disease experts did caution that correlation may not be causation, in these cases.

Data indicates that the number of Americans who contracted the flu did decrease over the past year. But that could be a reflection not just of mask-wearing, but also increased handwashing and social distancing, said Peter Katona, a clinical professor of medicine at University of California, Los Angeles.

“I have a feeling that when COVID goes away, masks are going to go away,” Katona said.

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