After first saying cloth facemasks were not effective in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now encouraging Americans to wear masks whenever they are in the presence of other people, outside of those with whom they are self-isolating. Governments in Europe and other parts of the world are also increasingly suggesting or ordering their use. The World Health Organization, conversely, continues to maintain that healthy people should only wear masks when taking care of someone suspected of having the new coronavirus. (Protective N95 masks are, for the most part, being funneled to the medical personnel who are experiencing shortages and who need them the most.)
While the guidance is conflicting and confusing, there is no doubt that more consumers all around the globe are wearing face masks that cover their mouths and noses. This practice has been common in many East Asian countries for some time, particularly in China, where the population relies on masks for both disease and pollution protection.
Increasing demand naturally leads to the possibility of licensing. Licensed versions are already available in Asia, and signs suggest that face masks may evolve into a licensed category in other countries as well:
- Japanese apparel company Ceno markets licensed character-based masks under its Gonoturn brand, featuring Rilakkuma, Doraemon, Bonobono, Hamtaro, and Hello Kitty and the rest of the Sanrio family of properties. Other Asian companies, such as KNH of Taiwan, make cartoon prints, although not necessarily licensed.
- In China, fashion designers are creating face masks as well as other protective apparel. Liu Wei, based in Beijing, recently designed germ-resistant and breathable windbreakers, some of which are used in medical settings. Meanwhile, designers including Masha Ma, Wang Zhijun, Xander Zhou, Qiu Hao, and Sankuanz have been creating pollution masks since the mid-2010s.
- Halyard, a U.S.-based medical equipment supplier, has a license with Disney for children’s masks. Pre-coronavirus, they were positioned as being for use by kids who have the flu, are visiting a hospital, or are immuno-compromised.
- Croatian fashion designer Zoran Aragovic makes colorful masks from leftover fabrics that are simply a fashion statement, without protective qualities. They have become popular in his home country.
- U.S. designers are mostly getting into face mask production for charitable reasons, either making them to donate directly to medical personnel or selling them to raise funds for hospitals. But there have been some commercial ventures. These range from niche fashion brands such as Los Angeles Apparel and Matrushka to outdoorsy offerings such as Ball and Buck’s camo version. And designers and retailers active in production for medical professionals, including Christian Siriano, Prada, and H&M, among many others, could easily transition to consumer offerings at some point if demand remains high after the crisis.
- An activist posted a petition on Change.org in the hopes of convincing the five U.S. major sports leagues, as well as the NCAA and NASCAR, to work with face mask manufacturers on team-identified products as a way to encourage children and adults to wear them during the pandemic.
A growing group of communicable-disease experts are starting to say that there could be a long period of continuing cases and/or multiple waves of COVID-19 after the immediate crisis wanes and people start getting back to work and play. That suggests that the potential exists for face masks to become a permanent category for entertainment, design, and other properties in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, as it already has, at least to a degree, in Asia.