Americans are buying face masks again after CDC guidelines change

Anne D'Innocenzio
Associated Press

NEW YORK – Masks, which had started to disappear from store shelves, may be front and center again.

Mask sales have risen as Americans worry about the the delta variant of the coronavirus. Retail analysts expect sales will get another jolt after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course on masking guidelines Tuesday, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the USA where COVID-19 cases are surging.

Sales of masks rose 24% for the week ended Tuesday, compared with the prior week, reversing weekly declines since May, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index. San Francisco-based grocery delivery company Instacart said mask sales via its online platform have increased since the Fourth of July weekend, reversing a decline begun in April. Google reported that searches for the term “masks" doubled since the CDC announcement.

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The scenario marks a shift from the past two months when masks were heavily discounted and pushed to the side on the sales floor after the CDC relaxed guidance in May. Even before then, data from NielsenIQ showed that mask sales consistently declined weekly since early April, going from $101 million worth of masks to roughly $37 million for the week ended July 3. NielsenIQ doesn't yet have July sales figures.

“People were just not buying them – masks were really fading out," said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. He noted that even as consumers go back to buying masks, the business is not going to be as big as last year during the height of COVID-19. He said stores face challenges in determining how many they should order and how much they should display them.

“No one actually wants to go out and make another big commitment," Saunders said. "No one knows what's going to happen."

Gap, along with its portfolio of brands, including Old Navy and Athleta, as well as Etsy, made millions of dollars on masks last year.

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Etsy, a global online marketplace for handmade goods, saw its masks go from 14% of gross merchandise sales in the second quarter of 2020 to less than 3% in the first quarter of 2021. The company declined to comment on sales trends Wednesday, noting it's in its quiet period before its earnings release next week.

Since the onset of the pandemic, 3M increased its annual production of N95 masks fourfold to 2.5 billion by building extra capacity. The company said global demand reached its peak in the first quarter of this year, which included stockpiling from governments and hospitals.3M sees a deceleration in overall health care demand and is adjusting production, increasing supply to industrial and consumer outlets while continuing to prioritize health care workers in the geographies seeing increased COVID-19 cases and elevated hospitalization rates.

3M CEO Mike Roman told analysts Tuesday that, just like in the past, it is “prepared to increase production in response to COVID-19-related needs or future emergencies when needed."

Honeywell International, another big manufacturer of N95 masks, said it “continues to produce N95 masks in the U.S. to meet the needs of frontline and essential workers.”

In light of renewed interest in face coverings, Vanessa Gordon plans to relaunchher website that sells masks she designed and produces in India. She launched in September 2020 with Shopify but closed it down in January because she sold only about 50 through the site and another 50 through family and friends. She said there was too much competition elsewhere and shoppers weren't wearing face coverings as much.

Gordon said she's confident she will quickly sell out of her inventory of 1,000 masks and will produce more.

“People are still getting sick – even those who are vaccinated," Gordon said. “This is shifting people's mindset. I think we will be wearing masks for a long time.”

COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, but they’re not 100% effective. A small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19 if exposed to the virus that causes it, according to the CDC. Vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die.