Posted on 03 Jul 2020

Masks are in our Future - Considerations for Businesses

6-7 minutes read

Covid-19 has brought business and safety considerations around masks to the forefront of our zeitgeist. This note offers an overview of challenges and opportunities around protecting America’s workforce through masks. I’m not a doctor, and direct medical advice should be sought from a physician, but science has shown that wearing masks is a must.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a human tragedy and has severely affected how we are able to live our lives in 2020 and beyond. Aside from changing the ways we greet each other, work and live, it has also led to a temporary shutdown of business activities across industries. Parts of the economy, such as retail or entertainment venues, can remain closed for longer periods of time, with few drastic consequences for our livelihood. Some “essential” industries, such as food supply chains and energy have been affected by the crisis in a way that could put the very foundation of our social fabric at risk. For business owners in essential industries, safeguarding workers is a top priority to ensure they can continue with core business and production tasks. Other industries need to implement measures to safeguard workers and patrons, as a push towards re-opening our economy on a broader level is currently underway. As President Trump stated in May, the US is to open again “vaccine or no vaccine”.

Common response strategies to safeguard workers from infection include usage of PPE (personal protective equipment), such as masks, shields and gloves. Additional strategic measures include tracking and tracing (and adjacent technology development), hygiene measures, as well as social distancing. While most measures add some level of protection for workers and patrons, for businesses faced with the task of safeguarding their workers, procuring safe masks should be a top priority. Masks, when used correctly, can be a valuable tool to prevent viral transmission between individuals. Here are some aspects to consider when making procurement decisions for masks.

Mask Types

Most masks are either reusable, or disposable. Common mask types include disposable surgical masks (3-ply, 4-ply), N95 or KN95 standard masks with a “fitted” shape and cloth masks with or without insertable filters. Other mask types that have recently gathered attention in the market offer antimicrobial nano-coating to sterilize any virus particles. Protection results from deflection and filtration efficiency (blocking incoming particles), as well as fit. If the mask seals around the face, this can increase protection capabilities.

Depending on intended usage, your preferred mask type may vary. Disposable surgical masks are best for patrons entering your place of business that do not have masks of their own. They are highly protective and available at a low cost. Fitted high-filtration masks are best for workers who closely engage with customers, often speaking, while reusable masks with antiviral coating may work best for workers who are active in high-touchpoint settings.

Filtration Efficiency

Cloth masks often have low filtration efficiency (between 2-38%) which makes them an inadequate choice for many businesses, since they no do not provide adequate protection for workers or patrons. Quality 3-ply, N95/KN95 and multiple other mask types (such as the AIrQueen, or the InvisiSmart) provide over 95% filtration efficiency. If you are able to, I recommend opting for high filtration masks, instead of low-filtration cloth mask options. Look for FDA-approved masks and masks that have been certifiably tested for filtering efficacy.

Cost per month / price-per wear

Determine your business/customer mask uses and use this to guide your decisions, regarding which mask types will best fit your needs. A good way to model out costs, is to chart out the cost per employee, per month, based on the required number of wears. With this long-term perspective, reusable options may turn out to be more economical than disposable.

Economic Impact

Sourcing masks from domestic providers is usually more expensive than sourcing similar quality masks produced in China. However, we also need to think about strengthening domestic supply chains for masks in light of the unstable situation around import and export from China. If your business has budgets available to support local producers, investing in domestic products could help with setting a market-demand-based foundation for more PPE production from within the US.

Marketing / Branding Value

Many masks can be obtained with custom branding. This gives any customer-facing business an opportunity to gain increased visibility by integrating branded masks into your marketing strategy.

Masks are in our Future

In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, wearing masks has become part of the “new normal”. Going forward, I expect that access to masks will be included in health plans or become part of a basic nurture of health package that will be available in a workplace setting. Beyond protecting from infection, masks are going to play a bigger role as air quality in urban settings decreases. N95-masks were a go-to solution for many California residents, during past wildfire seasons. The possibility of future pandemics, and the looming threat of poor air quality may require us to look beyond the limits of our capitalist structures. We need to establish open communication lines across industries. We are facing a collective issue and we need collaborative solutions. Masks will be part of our economy and every business needs to understand how to manage mask selection and procurement. Ultimately, masks help ensure the protection of goods, which affects all segments of the population.

If you are a business working to bring your workforce back online, we would like to hear from you. Contact us at:

Alicia Ferratusco, the founder of SF-based innovation hub Starfish, joined C19 Coalition with a focus on developing a secure masks supply chain for US-businesses.