When Elizabeth Schreiber, a registered nurse and mask seller in Boca Raton, Fla., saw mask sales on her Etsy shop surge in the last two weeks of July, she knew something was wrong.
“Throughout the time I’ve been selling masks, I could always tell when there was going to be an increase in Covid cases because I would all of a sudden start to get a lot of orders,” Ms. Schreiber said.
Since mid-July, her sales have nearly doubled from the beginning of the month. She sold 40 masks in the first half of July and 82 over the second. While coronavirus case numbers are rising across the United States (and in much of the world), Florida in particular has seen one of the biggest upticks, with a seven-day average of 15,818 cases at the end of July compared to 1,694 on July 1, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
Ms. Schreiber isn’t the only mask seller to experience a surge in business. After a lull in orders at the start of what many thought would be a worry-free summer, many retailers and mask makers are seeing spikes in sales as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads. Case numbers and hospitalizations are on the rise once again, and mask mandates are returning in many cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Last week, in a reversal from previous guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that those who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission. That includes anyone in schools, including staff, students and visitors. And although the vaccines provide strong protection against severe illness and death, the C.D.C. has found that it is still possible for vaccinated people to spread the virus and be infected by it.
The whiplash in guidance has created public confusion surrounding where and how often masks should be worn. But mask sellers and designers in the United States are starting to think that the rise of the new variant may mean face coverings are here to stay, perhaps as a semi-permanent part of our wardrobes.
Masks are already commonplace in many countries, including South Korea and Japan, and are worn for a variety of reasons including disease prevention and protection from pollution.
In the United States, “I personally think mask wearing will be a new norm for some people,” said John Lin, the director of operations at Pacific Mason, a company that specializes in bags and accessories but began making masks during the pandemic. (The brand said sales of masks rose 300 percent in the last week of July from the previous week.) “With new variants being discovered from time to time, we just can’t forget about protecting our friends and families,” he said.
Masahiko Nakasuji, the chief marketing officer of Uniqlo, said masks have been a popular item for the brand and that Uniqlo is planning to sell them for the foreseeable future. “We believe there will continue to be a need for masks, and we have decided to offer the product year round,” Mr. Nakasuji said. “For us what’s important is to deliver protection and comfort at the same time.”
Understand the Delta Variant
Another designer that made an early pivot is Christian Siriano, whose specialty is luxury women’s wear. He was one of the first high-profile designers to start making masks in March 2020, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked for help manufacturing protective equipment, and his brand has been making non-medical-grade masks ever since.
Mr. Siriano said he also expects his brand will “introduce a few new styles for the fall/holiday season.” When the mask mandates were lifted recently, he said, mask sales “went very low.” In the last week, however, “there’s been maybe a 30 percent increase,” he said.
Jack Carlson, the founder and C.E.O. of Rowing Blazers, saw an even bigger increase: “Average daily face mask sales have increased 130 percent in the last two weeks of July, compared to in May and June,” he said.
The company’s masks, which originally sold for $25, had been reduced to $5 at the beginning of July.
Designing a New Norm
Many designers have been responding to the fact that mask wearing may be a lot more frequent by creating collections that are, well, fashionable.
Florence Ryza, who sells highly intricate embroidered masks as well as more everyday printed ones on Etsy, said her customers often send her photos of their outfits and ask if she can find a mask that would match. “One of the most fun things I did was to match masks for two sisters attending the Kentucky Derby,” she said. “I think people look at masks the same way they look at handbags, shoes, scarves, et cetera.”
“Since the first thing you look at is someone’s face, it stands to reason people are looking for something unique and special — something to make them stand out in a sea of blue and black boring surgical throwaway masks,” she said.
The C.D.C. recommends that masks “have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric” and that they be worn to fully cover the nose and mouth, without gaps on the sides. Designers have used these constraints to their creative advantage.
Silk florals, big bows, brand logos and accessory sets (see: mask chains) have all become regular mask adornments. Cassandra Mayela, an artist and designer in New York, started making a bouquet mask that was more like a sculpture.
Masks have also become a vehicle for political and social statements. At last year’s U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka wore face masks with the names of Black people who were victims of racial injustice, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Even after mask mandates lift again, designers are betting that people will continue to reach for expressive options. “As the mask goes from this annoying thing you’re required to wear to something that people are actually choosing to wear, there will be people wanting a more unique, non-disposable mask,” said Mr. Carlson, of Rowing Blazers.
The brand is currently working on a collaboration with Warm & Wonderful for a sheep-pattern mask, a spinoff of its wildly popular revival of the sheep sweater worn by Princess Diana. “We’ve had many requests for masks with the same pattern. So we’re working on that, again in partnership with the original designers,” Mr. Carlson said.
For Mariia Kovalenko, who lives in Brooklyn and attends Bard High School, the mask won’t ever fully go away. “I think forever I’m going to wear a mask on the train or at the airport, but in some places outside, I’d rather not wear a mask,” she said. “I think if we see more cases of the new variant, we’ll all wear it more. It’s just frustrating.”
She invested last year in several colorful masks to reflect her personal style, as well as mask chains. “At that time, you probably wore your mask more often than anything else in your closet,” she said. “We’re all just hoping we can throw them out soon, but I think that’s kind of the new normal.”
Robert Sidberry, a building concierge in Brooklyn, isn’t as certain. While talking about the future of masks on Sunday he said that he hadn’t bought any lately but wears them in enclosed spaces.
When he’s on the job in an open-floor lobby that usually has the front door ajar, he has been comfortable going without one this summer. “If I go into a restaurant or a deli or a store like that, I make sure I put my mask on,” he said. “But where we can give each other enough space, I think it’s a personal choice. In certain areas where the case numbers are rising and in schools, I think it’s positive to wear a mask.”
“My mother gets on me because I had Covid, and I was out for a while. Even when they said ‘OK, you don’t have to wear the masks,’ she was still pushing me to wear it,” Mr. Sidberry said. “Maybe I should be wearing a mask right now, I don’t know.”
In many regions of the world, masking is much more prevalent than it is in the United States. In a series of studies, researchers found that people in what they called “collectivist” cultures are more likely to wear masks.
The researchers defined “collectivism” as “the tendency to be more concerned with the group’s needs, goals and interests than with individual-oriented interests,” said Jackson Lu, the lead researcher and an assistant professor at M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. They measured it using the pre-existing Hofstede’s index and the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness index.
The latter is part of a research project started in 1991 by Robert House to examine relationships between “societal culture, societal effectiveness and organizational leadership.” It has since been updated, as with the Hofstede index which was first created by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede as part of his six dimensions of national culture.
“The cultural dimension of collectivism-individualism fundamentally shapes people’s attitudes and behaviors,” said Dr. Lu.
Countries with more collectivist cultures, including South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam, had higher mask use during the course of the study last year, according to Dr. Lu. But in regions that score higher on the individualism scale, such as the United States and South Africa, mask use was lower.
Although masks help provide protection against Covid-19, “they can create physical discomfort and inconvenience,” Dr. Lu said. Because people in collectivist cultures “are more concerned with the collective welfare, they may be more willing to tolerate such personal inconvenience and wear masks.”
This is consistent with a 2020 survey by the Brookings Institution, which found that the main reason Americans didn’t want to wear masks was because they felt it was their right as “an American to not wear a mask.”
But the variability of mutations of the coronavirus, the rates of vaccination, and changing guidance at state and local levels could begin to chip away at that.
A day after speaking to The New York Times about his situational mask ambivalence, Mr. Sidberry was wearing a mask. “I thought a lot about it after our conversation,” he said. “It’s better to err on the side of caution, I decided.”