As experts disagree about whether the public should use face masks to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, some businesses in Winnipeg are taking production into their own hands.
BellaBALAS, a boutique that specializes in clothing made from bamboo fabrics, is co-owned by 58-year-old twins Shawna Balas, a designer, and Daria Balas Zmiyiwsky, a marketing director.
They're producing reusable masks that cost $10 and use folded paper towels as a filter underneath bamboo fabric. Since introducing the masks last week, word has spread beyond their usual customers and Balas said she has been working "non-stop" since Tuesday, producing about 100 masks per day.
"People are now really taking the initiative to protect, which is really amazing," Balas said.
BellaBALAS is not the only local business pivoting to face-mask production. Wilder Goods, an Exchange District leather and canvas goods shop, announced through Instagram Tuesday they were making masks to donate, asking their followers to suggest suitable organizations to receive them.
Public opinion on whether asymptomatic people should be wearing masks has rapidly shifted in the past few weeks. Health officials originally said that, apart from health-care professionals and those who are ill, people should not wear masks, but it was announced Friday that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection will recommend all Americans cover their face when leaving home.
Manitoba's chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said Friday he would not change his position on people wearing masks while outside, saying he did not want more people leaving home more often. He also said it was "difficult to know" if homemade masks would be helpful.
Despite this, more people outdoors in Winnipeg seem to be wearing masks, gloves and other medical gear, something Balas said she has noticed while producing the masks.
When the announcement about the bamboo mask production was originally sent out to their clientele, Zmiyiwsky said a customer who works in health care got in touch, criticizing the business for selling masks "because nobody should be wearing masks." She then sought the advice of another customer who also worked in health care, who said the same.
"We found a few studies that are saying, yes, we should be wearing masks, and … it’s been all over the media, protect yourself, protect the droplets coming out of your nose, keep your hands off of your face," Zmiyiwsky said.
Zmiyiwsky said it was possible that the original call for people to not purchase and regularly use face masks was meant to preserve resources for people on the front lines of the pandemic.
Zmiyiwsky stressed that the bamboo masks are "absolutely not" a replacement for N95 masks and is instead "designed to keep your breathing to yourself" and "to keep other people’s breathing off of you."
"This is not a mask that’s going to prevent you from catching the virus, it is a mask to protect your own breathing and droplets."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
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Updated on Saturday, April 4, 2020 at 3:40 PM CDT: Clarifies reference to surgical masks in second-last paragraph as N95 masks.