Remember 16 months ago, when panic buying and a disrupted global supply chain led to a shortage of toilet paper?
In case you forgot, it was only a couple weeks later that personal protective equipment — and especially N95 respirator masks — became a rarity, too. PPE is still in short supply according to the FDA, despite the fact that major suppliers have increased their production capacity since the start of the pandemic.
Those of us not working in healthcare or tasked with restocking PPE at a retail store may have been blissfully unaware of this. From cheap surgical face coverings to branded Etsy creations, masks are everywhere — and it sometimes seems as though we’ll be pulling them from couch cushions and beneath car seats for the rest of our lives.
But not all masks are created equal. Nor do they all offer the same level of protection from COVID-19 or smoke. The CDC still argues N95 masks should be prioritized for healthcare workers, and that well-fitting cloth masks offer enough protection against COVID-19 for most people.
With the Delta variant on the rise and wildfire season fast approaching (and in some areas of Northern California, already here), however, local retail stores are noticing increased demand. SF Weekly called 17 retail locations that have been known to carry N95 masks in fire seasons past. All but one of them said more customers had been asking. Luckily, only three noticed a significant supply squeeze, with all stores saying it was still reasonably easy to keep masks in stock.
“We have a stash that’s about as big as it usually is, which is 50,000 or so KN95 masks,” says Eugene Lee, general manager of Western Gravel & Roofing Supply. While N95s are given the stamp of approval by the FDA, KN95s are the Chinese equivalent and often easier to procure in the United States. They’re also condoned by the CDC for non-medical use, unlike N95s.
Lee, who had a day named after him in the city of Alameda for the extraordinary scale of his mask donations during the 2019 fire season, says he always keeps some extras stocked. “We know wildfire season happens, and all my staff will need to have them, and customers will need to have them, and I’ll probably go right back to donating them to people in need.”
N95 masks without the small, three-dimensional exhalation valve on the front offer top-tier protection against both wildfire smoke and the coronavirus, while those with the small exhalation valve still offer decent protection against ash and smoke for outdoor or otherwise low-covid risk situations. This is because masks with the small exhalation valve allow exhaled air to escape the mask virtually unabated, offering little protection to other people in close proximity. The addition of a cloth mask underneath or over a mask with an exhalation valve, however, can help protect those around you from the spread of COVID-19 and protect users against heart and lung disease-triggering wildfire smoke particles.
Store representatives who spoke with the Weekly said demand had increased significantly in the last week and a half, after a months-long decrease in purchases. This aligns with the timeline by which seven Bay Area counties began strongly recommending vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors. It also aligns with the start of California’s largest wildfire this year, the Dixie Fire, which began nearly two weeks ago. Four shopkeepers noted that while there had been little-to-no interest in masks with a cooling valve a few weeks ago, demand now spanned both N95 varieties.
Luckily, even if we haven’t been thinking this far ahead, shopkeepers in the city have been prepping for years. “Ever since the drought hit about six years ago, we’ve been habitually carrying a lot of masks in our backstock, just for such an event,” says Albert Chow, owner of Great Wall Hardware. “We saw the writing on the wall.”