Mask makers mull future as pandemic mandates drop
Ontario sheds most mask mandates Monday, following other provinces
Tina McLarty made so many face masks, she blew the motor on her sewing machine.
"I had to get a new one. It actually had black smoke inside of it."
At her peak, McLarty was making 15 or 20 cloth masks an hour, holed up in her Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., home sewing "seven in the morning till 11 o'clock at night." She donated them to the hospital, sold them to family and friends, and raised $10,000 for local charities.
But business has dried up. She's got an eight-foot table at home, stacked with dozens of unsold masks, spanning the colour spectrum, with ones for every holiday. She's even lowered her price from $5 to two — and they still aren't selling.
She's not very optimistic. After all, Ontario is ending mask mandates in most public settings Monday, though keeping them in place at health-care facilities like long-term care homes, and on public transit, in shelters and jails.
While the future of mask sales is uncertain for smaller and homemade producers, there's still a need — particularly for medical masks or respirators, which Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam recommended switching to late last year.
Many have since moved on from cloth masks. McLarty believes she's done making hers.
"I've sewed enough masks for my lifetime."
Quit his job to sell masks
Ontario joins Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Yukon — all have already dropped most masking requirements. Nova Scotia also ends its mandate Monday.
Mandatory masking, which has been in place continuously for all of Ontario since July 2020, made for a booming new industry.
Electrical engineer Andrew Mason even quit his day job with California audio-visual giant THX after starting Canada Strong Masks, which develops and sells them.
Mason, who runs the business out of Orangeville, Ont., northwest of Brampton, said sales have dropped significantly from their January Omicron-fuelled peak, which saw up to 8,000 orders a day. Now, his team of eight sends out 400 to 800 packages a day.
He's feeling sad about the mandate ending, especially for those who are vulnerable — and takes issue with Ontario's lack of testing and data.
"It seems like pure political calculus at this point to drop the mask mandate. The evidence is all pointing in the other direction where we should maintain the masks for a bit longer."
Mason's decided to keep his business running, as long as there's a need and he's selling enough masks to "keep the lights on."
"At the same time, we're not dedicated to building some empire of PPE," he said about personal protective equipment.
At its facility in Brockville, Ont., south of Ottawa, 3M Canada started making N95 respirators last year, helping ensure a domestic supply of PPE. The company says dropping mask mandates will have no impact on its business.
"The respirators that are needed by our workers will not go away," said Penny Wise, president of 3M Canada, based in London, Ont.
The company says it has shipped more than 50 million respirators to the province and the federal government for health-care and front-line workers. It will, however, no longer require its employees to wear masks at its work sites in Ontario after the mandate drops. Wise will keep wearing hers.
"I'll just need a few weeks to kind of ease myself into not wearing a mask and building up my own comfort level."
'People are still getting sick'
So will Tyson Wesley, who runs Indigenous Face Masks with his partner in Ottawa. He recently pivoted, to now sell kokum scarves, alongside cloth masks, featuring art by Indigenous artists. The scarves have a traditional floral design, with proceeds going to Ukraine through the Red Cross.
Wesley, who is from Kashechewan First Nation, started the business as a way to help isolated First Nations communities access face masks. He's sold more than 45,000 masks since October 2020 — donating another 45,000 to Indigenous communities and groups.
He too will keep selling masks past the mandate's end, as First Nations communities continue to be impacted. Indigenous Services Canada reported 2,669 active cases on First Nations this week.
"We have such a disadvantage when we're dealing with COVID since our communities are still overcrowded," he said.
Wesley knows the virus is still out there. He just attended a funeral of someone who died because of COVID.
"For us to sit down today to say it's over and having gone to a funeral, I don't think we can safely say it's over for us," he said. "People are still getting sick and unfortunately people are passing away from it and I don't feel safe without my mask yet."