State health officials recommend wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, but for many Alaskans, finding a mask has proved to be challenging.
As chain stores ran out of medical-grade masks, homemade and cloth masks grew in popularity.
Some people have taken to making the masks at home with supplies they already have, while others have relied on gifts from friends and family. Some have connected with others in the community via social media to obtain masks.
Several locally owned businesses are also stocking the face coverings and say they now have plenty to go around as the state continues to reopen.
In January and February, buyers began to hoard medical supplies, said Randy Smith of Lake Otis Medical Supply. As concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic hit closer to home, the store began limiting the number of high-demand supplies each customer could purchase in hopes that there would be enough to go around, but they still have wait lists for numerous items.
The store was stocked Thursday with fabric masks, which Smith said do not sell out as fast because of the higher price point. Smith said the surgical-grade N95 masks are nearly impossible to stock because they’re being prioritized for health care workers.
N95 masks filter out small and large particles, including bacteria and viruses, that cloth face masks are not able to filter, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The procedure masks, they go fast," Smith said. “If we got 10 cases, they’d be gone the next day.”
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services advises that people wear face coverings whenever they are in public or interact with someone outside their household so that particles are not spread from person to person. While the masks may not prevent a person from contracting the virus, they reduce the chance of the wearer spreading COVID-19 to others. The state recommends using cotton, linen or silk fabrics and said it is important that the masks cover your nose and mouth.
At Kim’s Alterations, owner Cindy Shin started sewing cloth face masks and selling them when her store reopened last week. She’d heard from customers that there was no place to buy masks locally and that shipping times from online retailers were often taking more than a month to arrive.
Stephanie Van Ness, owner of Andy’s Ace Hardware on Muldoon Road, said her store is filled with masks and other face coverings, like plastic shields. The store doesn’t have any N95 masks, but Van Ness said they have been able to keep similar KN95 masks in stock.
She said the store gets regular shipments with different designs and patterns of cloth face masks as well, although the more popular designs sometimes sell out within hours.
“Pretty soon it’s going to be part of fashion,” she said, laughing. “We have some super cute ones coming in for kids and adults.”
Alaska Restaurant Supply began filling bulk orders of disposable masks for the public online last week. The company is selling orders of disposable masks in quantities of 50 to 250.
“There’s been a surprising amount of interest that we’ve seen,” said the company’s marketing director, Lindsey Neidlinger. “We were a little nervous investing as much as we did right when things were just starting to open back up in the economy, but it seems like there’s still a very large interest in it, especially from the public.”
The supply store is offering curbside pickup on orders but Neidlinger said they prefer to mail the masks, and shipping within the area generally only takes a few days.
“I’ve seen a lot of people mentioning Amazon, but with the state our local economy is in, it really does benefit people to shop locally,” she said.
The CDC guidelines for face coverings also offer advice for turning old T-shirts into masks and instructions to sew your own.
As he prepared to walk into Carrs on Wednesday, Ralph Carney secured his own homemade mask over his face. He said masks hadn’t been available at the stores he’d visited and he was wary of the quality of a mass-produced mask. Carney crafted his mask with vacuum filters to give it added layers of filtration and protection.
An Anchorage nurse said she’s connected with more than 200 people in need of masks through Facebook. Beth Busk posted in a local group dedicated to sharing supplies during the pandemic and offered to make masks for anyone in need.
“I had no idea so many people would want them,” she said. “Within minutes, my inbox was flooded.”
She accepts donations but said her main goal is making sure people have the supplies they need to keep themselves and others safe. She said people have had trouble finding masks and they may not want to go into a store to try to buy a mask if they don’t have one to wear, she said.
Busk said she knows how important it is that people remain cautious as the state reopens. She wants to encourage others to follow precautions like social distancing, thorough hand-washing and mask use so the state does not see an uptick in COVID-19 cases after reopening.
“This is not about politics,” she said. “It’s not about anything other than doing everything we can to protect everyone in our community.”
Busk said people have been resourceful about finding masks and connecting with their community to fill the need. She’s seen others selling masks on Facebook and hopes to see more people making masks to give to the general public.
But most importantly, she hopes people remember to be kind during these stressful times.
“We’re not all in the same boat, but are in the same storm," she said.