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Patchwork Of Businesses, Crafters Lend Skills To Mainers Who Need Masks

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Hyperlight Mountain Gear in Biddeford typically makes outdoor gear. They have recently switched to making face masks.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and the State of Maine changed their guidance and are now advising that members of the general public wear a mask in situations where social distancing might be difficult, such as in the supermarket.

But there’s a major shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers, and that has prompted more people to make their own masks or find new buying options.

When the University of Southern Maine closed for in-person classes in March, Molly Ladd expected she’d be spending a lot of time at her sewing machine. Ladd is studying to be a clinical mental health counselor, but she’s also an avid crafter.

What she didn’t expect is that she’d be spending so much of that time making cotton face masks. For now, Ladd’s at home all day, but her partner works at a large, busy Hannaford supermarket. She says they started to get worried.

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Molly Ladd

“He’s going to work and being exposed to a lot of people on a daily basis. I’m at home, and thereby I’m at risk via him, so we’re both living by the assumption that we’re both potentially infected. My partner being at work every day, he’s concerned that he could infect other people, and that those people could infect him,” she says.

So she made some face masks for him to wear to work, for herself when she leaves the house and for friends and family members.

“And then actually my partner’s coworkers,” she says. “Since he’s been wearing his mask at work, they don’t have any sort of protective equipment at work, so they said, ‘Hey can we get some of those?’ So now I’m working on some masks for his coworkers and I sent him off today with a batch.”

In an email, Hannaford says it’s prioritizing social distancing and other safety measures for employees, and has given employees access to gloves and face shields. The company says it has always allowed employees to wear masks, and that now that guidance on them has changed, the company has ordered masks for employees that have begun arriving.

Ladd is not the only person making masks at home. Abby Gilchrist owns Fiddlehead Artisan Supply in Belfast, and says there has been a big spike in her business since the CDC changed its guidelines on masks — and not just from her regular customers.

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Abby Gilchrest from Fiddlehead Artisan Supply

“A lot of people are pulling machines out of their closets and beginning to start sewing again, something that a lot of people who are calling me haven’t done for a long time,” she says.

Gilchrist says for some people, making masks is an urgent need.

“It’s a little scary when you hear people’s stories about why people need to get these quickly — the woman who doesn’t have a sewing machine and she’s hand sewing because her son has cancer and she doesn’t want them with the other kids if they’re not wearing masks. It’s definitely scary to hear about the people who don’t have the resources they need, and hear about the lengths they’re going to provide for their families,” she says.

For those who don’t sew — and don’t have a relative or friend who does — there are starting to be more options from the commercial sector. One of these is Hyperlite, a Biddeford company that makes high-end outdoors gear that costs hundreds of dollars.

These days, founder and CEO Mike St. Pierre says the company has completely turned to making much more economically priced cloth masks.

“We’re selling them five to a bag for $20,” he says.

St. Pierre says the company’s making thousands of masks a day from a special high-tech polyester and prioritizing direct-to-consumer sales.

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Workers sew face masks at Hyperlite in Biddeford.

“We have not advertised this. We have not put it on social media. All there is is a link on our homepage of our website. And that was Friday morning at roughly 11 a.m. we went live. By Friday night, we had thousands of orders. By Monday, we had tens of thousands of orders. And today we’re sitting on orders of over 60,000,” he says.

St. Pierre says the company, which has brought back many of its staff and will likely be looking to hire more, is about a week behind on orders.

“But I am working on a plan with my staff to significantly ramp up production…I have a plan in place to do about 20,000 a day,” he says.

But St. Pierre says this isn’t necessarily what he’d prefer his company to be doing.

“At the end of the day, I would love to be continuing to build our products. But I also see that turning around once you come out of this, I think people are going to be wanting to get into the outdoors much more,” he says.

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Masks at Hyperlite in Biddeford.

Meanwhile, for Ladd, every mask she gets out into the world goes a little further toward protecting everyone.

“So the idea is everyone is wearing a mask or somehow filtering the air that they’re breathing from getting to someone else. If everyone is doing that, then it reduces everyone’s risk of contracting it from one another,” she says.

The guidelines on masks have changed significantly during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, and public health officials are still stressing that mask wearing is not a replacement for social distancing.

Originally published April 1, 2020 at 4:33 p.m. ET.

Nora is originally from the Boston area but has lived in Chicago, Michigan, New York City and at the northern tip of New York state. Nora began working in public radio at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor and has been an on-air host, a reporter, a digital editor, a producer, and, when they let her, played records.