Initially spurred to make face masks during the scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the first COVID-19 surge in March, Arkansas manufacturers continue to produce a variety of masks in response to local and national demand.
Little Rock real estate and manufacturing businessman John Chandler started receiving requests in mid-March from organizations suddenly desperate for large quantities of masks, fast. Chandler’s textile manufacturing company, Asian American Partners LLC (AAP), which is based in Little Rock with a number of global offices, responded quickly. By April 28, it had masks on the market and inventory on deck. Since the company already had the equipment and expertise for making textiles, the addition of mask production was relatively simple, and the new business made it possible to keep employees on staff in the face of economic downturns. “It was a good project … and we felt like we were doing something that was needed,” Chandler said.
Washable and disposable masks are available from AAP at MaskMyFace.com. Gaiters, a popular choice for outdoorsy types who wear the garment for sun protection, are also available. Selling to individual and commercial markets, the company distributed masks to people in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Canada within six weeks of starting the new endeavor. Now, AAP has a warehouse storefront — MaskMyFace.com reads the sign — in the Argenta neighborhood of North Little Rock that fills internet orders and offers curbside pickup and in-person retail.
AR Cloth Masks is also working to meet the ever-increasing demand for masks in Arkansas and beyond. Lisa and Jim Ferrell, lawyers and long-time members of the Arkansas business community, formed the company in partnership with Tian Yuan (TY) Garments, a manufacturer that operates at the port of Little Rock and globally, and other local companies like Custom XM and Nativ. Focusing on high-quality cloth masks sold in bulk to commercial customers, AR Cloth Masks has provided masks to Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the state of Arkansas and many schools and universities around the state. Individual retail sales are also an option at ARClothMasks.com, and the company has secured many of the state’s school mascot licenses for those wanting to show off school pride.
From its flash-bang start in March until now, the mask market continues to grow — and it’s getting crowded. Visibility is a challenge, especially for newly formed companies. It can be difficult to stand out on digital platforms like Facebook and for businesses to get approval to advertise. Having recently overcome the digital advertising obstacle, Chandler’s mask business is in some ways just getting started. The company hopes to distinguish itself with reasonable price points and by branching out from the standard medical mask with fun colors and prints that provide a chance to express a little personality. In August, it rolled out a Halloween collection of reversible masks and gaiters for kids and adults. Wearers can don the costume side when they’re feeling spooky, then flip it to the plain black side for less fanciful occasions.
For AR Cloth Masks, establishing credibility for new customers and for those who have been burned is key. “There have been, unfortunately, people who have gotten into the business of PPE but have not been able to deliver,” Lisa Ferrell said. “For example, I’ve had schools call me saying they had ordered from someone else, and it [wasn’t] going to arrive in time for the school year. And now, here they are.” Ferrell says that AR Cloth Masks keeps emergency inventory ready for such cases.
According to both companies, while the demand for masks fluctuates, it is steadily trending upward. CDC guidelines, rollouts of mask mandates from state governments and the return to school are all contributing factors to the increasing demand. AR Cloth Masks and AAP are both well equipped to meet the need. If necessary, TY Garments has the capability to produce hundreds of thousands of masks per week, according to Ferrell. While mask production is a high-volume, low-margin business, both Chandler and Ferrell report success. “We’re not going to quit our day job,” Chandler said, “but it has been a nice extra addition to what we already do.”
The future is, of course, uncertain, but there is a prevailing thought that the custom of wearing masks will probably outlive the COVID-19 crisis. “Because of the reason that we are all in this, it’s not a business I really want to be in in a year or two,” Ferrell said. “I want there to be a vaccine. I want people not to need masks. But I do think that people will wear masks more often in the future even after there is a COVID vaccine. When they have the flu or colds … it will become a way of keeping us all safe from lots of things.”
When the mask ordinance was passed in Little Rock, AAP donated 10,000 masks to the city, and did the same for North Little Rock when a mask mandate took place there. “We believe in it. We think it’s the most economical, most effective tool we have right now to fight the virus,” Chandler said. “So, not only are we trying to do it as part of our economy, but also we want to give back to the people that need it.”