As Omicron subsides and the statewide mask mandate lifts, local mask makers and sellers say they don’t want to be “arrogant” about the trajectory of the virus.
While New York’s governor has dropped the statewide mask mandate, many local mask makers in New York City will not stop production or sales just yet.
At the onset of the pandemic, demand for masks outpaced availability, and this led to a spike in production that has since leveled out. Sales for masks began to decline in March of 2021, and experts have said that the decline will continue this year. With the mask mandate lifted on February 9, New York City’s mask producers plan to persist in the face of an uncertain future.
Karen Perez, the founder of Second Wind, a New York City-based mask shop, said she decided to start the company in June 2020 when she heard from many friends and family members that they were in search of masks that were not entirely depressing.
“That’s when I thought about designing my own,” said Perez. “I wanted to find some kind of happiness and give a boost of confidence in the collective darkness we were experiencing.”
Perez’s company has since expanded to include accessories. In January of 2021, she began to offer earrings, necklaces and hats. Face coverings are approximately 60 percent of the total sales at Second Wind as of this month. While it’s difficult to anticipate how much mask sales will wane, Perez says she is not worried and not convinced that it will completely go out of style.
“I just don’t think we can be arrogant about what will happen with the virus,” she said, referring to the Delta and Omicron roller coaster of 2021.
Paul Canetti, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, similarly suggests caution.
“The biggest mistake any company or government can continue to make is to assume they know what’s going to happen with this pandemic in the future,” he said. “Just because mask mandates are being lifted now implies nothing about what will happen going forward.”
Even with the mask mandate lifted, many New York City residents feel a sense of civic duty through masks.
“There is a mask fatigue,” said Simon Teich, a New York City resident. “But I’ll wear it until it’s healthy and safe for me not to.” Hamilton Garner, another New York resident, feels similarly. “I’ll continue to wear them in public spaces that have greater density like public transportation after the mandate is lifted. Flus and viruses are still going to be around, so I want to do my part in protecting others.”
Nancy Rhodes, a founder of Alternew, began sewing masks at the onset of the pandemic to extend the lives of NC95 masks. She also began the NYC Mask Initiative in March 2020 to deliver masks to frontline workers and marginalized communities. She has since paused production as the market began to supply masks and people were able to access them more easily. But she doesn’t see this as the end of impact-making at her company in relation to public health.
“It’s not a halt,” said Rhodes, referring to her mask initiative being on pause. “The communities are still being connected, and we are still thinking about ways to make an impact.”
Naomi Mishkin founded New York-based mask company NAOMI NOMI in 2018. After the fashion world came to a brief halt in March 2020, Mishkin pivoted to filling what she saw as a more pressing need. “We took all of the fabrics meant for cute dresses and other clothing and we made masks,” she said.
Even though that pressing need has subsided, she plans to continue making masks.
“Asia has had masks for at least twenty to thirty years. I think America should adopt that, to just have masks in your repertoire,” she said. “Everyone should have five masks in their closet. Just like you need a couple socks in your drawer. They should be next to our underwear.”