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Retailers, community, stepping up to provide fabric face masks during coronavirus pandemic

  • COURTESY AKIRA COLLECTION
                                Health care workers at the hospice Navian donned donated face masks from the Akira Collection, a fashion bikini line that pivoted in response to the coronavirus to sew masks.

    COURTESY AKIRA COLLECTION

    Health care workers at the hospice Navian donned donated face masks from the Akira Collection, a fashion bikini line that pivoted in response to the coronavirus to sew masks.

  • COURTESY TORI RICHARD
                                A worker at Tori Richard cuts fabric for a mask.

    COURTESY TORI RICHARD

    A worker at Tori Richard cuts fabric for a mask.

Need a fabric face mask?

The challenge is finding a fabric face mask when everyone in Hawaii suddenly wants one.

Now that state and government leaders have recommended that residents wear a face mask when going out in public, and grocery stores like Foodland will require it, the demand for them has skyrocketed.

Local seamstresses have mobilized, and formed community groups to sew them for family, friends, first responders and health care workers. Facebook groups have popped up, with teams of seamstresses sharing patterns, tutorials and tips, and volunteering to sew them for those who need them.

Hawaii Kai resident Charlotte Yee sewed her own out of an old bedsheet, and has been making them for friends.

Yee, who had already been wearing masks weeks before officials recommended it, said wearing one is “the new polite.”

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>> Where to purchase or find a face mask in Hawaii

>> PHOTOS: Hawaii retailers provide fabric face masks during coronavirus pandemic

>> Mililani woman on a mission to create fabric face masks

>> VIDEO: Mililani woman shows you how to sew your own fabric face mask

“It made sense when they were saying some people were asymptomatic,” she said. “Fortunately here in Hawaii, because we have such a strong tie to Asia, there are a lot of people who do wear masks if they think they’re sick and want to protect others from getting sick.”

There is no real downside to wearing a mask, Yee said, and she is pleased to see more people wearing one.

Retailers have also stepped up, and are selling fabric face masks in a colorful array of prints and designs — some with built-in wire, pockets for filters, and adjustable ear loops. Choices range from simple, solid-color cotton masks to Aloha prints to custom- designed ones made by fashion designers such as Allison Izu, Kini Zamora and Ari South.

Most are selling the masks in order to donate more of them to health care workers and nonprofits in Hawaii and abroad. But many are sold out or swamped by demand, and struggling to keep up with orders.

Josh Feldman, president and CEO of Tori Richard, opted to make them and give them away a week ago.

The response from interested customers was swift, and more than 6,000 masks are now being mailed out. Another 6,000 are in production, with more on the way, and he asks that people be patient. Already, he has received thousands of email requests for more masks when they become available.

“It’s been overwhelming, and the the response is wonderful,” he said. “Now we’re furiously working to get these out.”

Initially, he withheld from making them because health care workers needed N95 respirators as personal protective equipment, not fabric masks.

Once officials recommended the public wear fabric masks when going out, the story changed.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell earlier this month urged all Oahu residents to wear cloth face masks. Doing so, he said, could prevent the spread of the new coronavirus by those who are asymptomatic, and keep people from touching their faces.

Days later, the CDC urged all Americans to wear a mask when leaving their homes.

“At that point, we looked at ourselves and said, how could we not do this?” Feldman said. “We almost have a moral obligation to make masks, and we also have thousands of yards of the elastic.”

There is a shortage of elastic, globally, he said, but he had some, along with cutting machines. After having had to close all his retail stores and furlough nearly 200 employees, he brought back a small production crew to make patterns and cut fabric, and sent them to an army of local, professional sewers working at home.

He offered the masks, made from Tori Richard’s own stock of 100% cotton lawn fabric, in sets of four at no charge other than $1 in postage.

In a Facebook post, Feldman wrote: “It’s time to go big. Not just for us, but all of us. Together. So, in addition, we have made a critical decision. We will NOT be selling these masks. The cost to make them is very low and we certainly have plenty of fabric on hand. It just didn’t feel right to us to charge for these.”

For others, sales of fabric face masks is a way to provide jobs and keep up donations to front line workers.

Jams World, which started offering face masks in early March after closing its retail stores, has been swamped with orders. Earlier requests had been coming in from California, where leaders recommended that people wear masks, and now local demand has jumped, according to Lei Rowan, retail and marketing director.

For every mask sold, Jams World is able to donate masks to hospitals including Kapiolani Center for Women and Children, Kaiser Permanente and Kuakini Medical Center.

Carissa Sugita and Ashley Benn had just launched the Akira Collection, a fashion bikini line, in February.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the Hawaii Baptist Academy graduates pivoted to making face masks. Like many other small businesses, they are selling masks in order to donate them to local health care workers, including at Navian, a hospice service provider.

“Right now, we have an opportunity to help our community and that is really all we are focused on,” said Sugita. “This is a deep-rooted tradition in Hawaii, and so we feel this is in line with our brand.”

Sugita said she fields requests for up to 100 at a time, and estimates the team has donated more than 1,500, so far.

For Summer Shiigi, founder and owner of Ten Tomorrow, a modern resort brand, the official CDC and mayoral recommendations have brought a new sense of purpose.

She had temporarily closed her Kaimuki store and shut down production when the stay-at-home order went into effect. She and others had already been sewing masks to donate to health care centers, and then began seeing demand from customers.

On Friday evening, Shiigi launched Ten Tomorrow’s line of 100% cotton canvas masks embroidered with positive messages such as “good vibes only” online. They sold out within 20 minutes.

Each one sold will help the company retain its production staff and keep up its donations, she said.

“It broke my heart to stop production, and this is our way to support the manufacturing pipeline,” she said. “I’m passionate about this being good for the community as a whole, supporting manufacturing in Hawaii, and doing good all around.”

CDC GUIDELINES FOR CLOTH FACE MASKS

>> Should fit snugly, but comfortably against the side of the face, include multiple layers of fabric, and allow for breathing without restriction.

>> Should be routinely washed, depending on frequency of use.

>> To remove, individuals should be careful not to touch eyes, nose or mouth, and wash hands immediately afterward.

>> Should not be placed on children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing.

>> Tutorials on making cloth face masks, including no-sew versions, are available at 808ne.ws/masktutorial.

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