The Very Suddenly Very Wide World of Masks
New York magazine|August 31–September 13, 2020
HOW OFTEN DOES IT HAPPEN that nearly every (rational) human in America simultaneously starts to wear an item few had worn before? In the span of less than a year, a sprawling multibillion-dollar fabric-face-mask industry has emerged; in the pages that follow, we make sense of it all—vetting more than 50 options, including the antimicrobial, the Rick Ross–approved, and a few not necessarily functional ones, like this invention from the L.A. denim brand 69.

For the strategist’s first article about masks, published in late January, we consulted with three infectious-disease doctors who confirmed what we had heard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and nearly every other qualified expert: Don’t wear them. Medical-grade N95 masks worked only if properly fitted and needed to be reserved for health-care workers.

By March, stocks of N95 masks were running dangerously low. Hospital staffers were forced to reuse masks, and patients were reportedly given tissues to cough into. Non-medical-grade masks were then said to be a good option. In response, amateur mask-making took off, whether it was by a group of Amish women in Pennsylvania who sewed 13,000 masks for a local medical center or by designer Christian Siriano, who shut down his clothing production and shifted to making masks for medical professionals full time.

Still, no one I knew was even considering buying a mask. We were all following the advice we’d been given, dutifully wiping down counters and washing our hands so often they hurt. That is, until China and South Korea released studies suggesting that 25 to 50 percent of infectious people showed no symptoms. Finally, on April 3, the CDC recommended that everyone wear face coverings in public. Surfaces were no longer the threat. Breathing was, which meant everyone around you was too.

America scrambled. Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, put out a video showing how to make a face covering from rubber bands and fabric. If you needed a mask in early April, you bought it on Etsy, made your own, or found a friend who could sew. There were a lot of people walking around with what looked like bedsheets on their faces.

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