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Does a free homemade mask kit made from clearance bin scraps count as an essential item during the coronavirus pandemic?
Major fabric retailer Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts claims that the free mask kits it gives out to customers are critical for health care workers and, therefore, its stores across the country need to remain open.
But that argument is not convincing everyone — even Jo-Ann workers themselves, four of whom told BuzzFeed News their stores were supplying poor-quality fabrics and materials in what they viewed as a slapdash effort to remain open.
“We’re trying to keep it [to what the company has described as] the correct kind of fabric— high thread count, 100% cotton — but it's gotten to the point where we are just grabbing random bolts of fabric off the shelves, whatever fits," said one store manager near Seattle, who asked to remain anonymous, like all employees interviewed for this article, in order to protect their employment. "We burned through all our clearance fabric."
"It’s kind of crazy we’re still open to the public," said a Jo-Ann employee from a store in Portland, Oregon.
The company denied the mask kit program had ulterior motives. “While we are sensitive to our Team Members' perception in this uncertain and frightening time, this is in no way a ploy,” a Jo-Ann spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Wearing masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus has become more commonplace in everyday settings, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is weighing changes to its recommendation that only those with the virus or in a health care setting should wear them. On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recommended citizens “use homemade face coverings when they are in public and interacting with others,” such as a trip to the supermarket.
Homemade masks may help reduce spit or droplets from infected individuals, if made out of tightly woven cotton and used properly — such as washing hands before or after removal, washing masks after use, and maintaining social distancing. But homemade masks are not recommended for a health care environment, unless no other options are available.
Some officials aren’t convinced either by Jo-Ann’s argument that it is ultimately benefiting health care workers by remaining open.
On Monday, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel denied the craft company's request to classify its retail workers as "critical infrastructure workers." Instead, Nessel ordered the store to close as part of the state's stay-at-home order, which closes all nonessential businesses. On Wednesday, police in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, also closed a Jo-Ann retailer that had remained open a week after the state implemented a shutdown order banning nonessential business.
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, customers flocked to Jo-Ann stores to purchase sewing and craft projects for bored kids and people stuck at home to use during quarantine. But many in the crowded stores, where both customers and staff can skew older, were not adhering to social distancing.
Soon, employees and customers flooded Jo-Ann's social media with calls for the stores to close and move to online orders only, with delivery or curbside pickup. A Twitter account called "Jo-Ann Employee Confessions" posted updates of employees saying they feared coming to work and that cleaning supplies were inadequate.
Jo-Ann’s management had insisted the company was an essential business, in part because they sell supplies to other small home businesses (such as fabric for Etsy sellers). But their most forceful argument was that they were offering supplies to make masks and gowns for essential health care workers, which have been in short supply across the country during the coronavirus crisis.
"The backlash from Jo-Ann’s not closing the store was so huge, they rolled out these masks,” said a manager from a Jo-Ann in the Bay Area, where the store was closed to the public after local authorities intervened following California's shelter-in-place order, but online orders were available for curbside pickup.
The company began offering free mask kits — with enough supplies to make five masks, supposedly to be donated to health care and other essential workers — which people could pick up in stores starting on March 16. On March 21, Jo-Ann’s social media accounts posted a video showing people how to sew a face mask.
"The timing was very fishy, it was when a lot of nonessential businesses were being forced to shut down," said the Jo-Ann staffer from Portland, Oregon.
For one Jo-Ann worker near Columbus, Ohio, the free mask kits announcement was enough for her to stop working, already frustrated at the “Black Friday–type crowds” in stores and the lack of staff and cleaning equipment. “That was kind of my moment when I decided to take a leave of absence,” she told BuzzFeed News. “We announced [the mask kits] and I saw how bad the crowds were, and I just realized Jo-Ann’s weren’t going to shut down throughout this, no matter what, and I had to put myself first.”
“It just felt like a ploy to get around the rules,” she added.
But a Jo-Ann spokesperson defended the company’s motives. “We have been and are providing essential materials for a real need," the spokesperson said. "Even the Mayor of Los Angeles yesterday told all residents they should create and wear handmade masks or face coverings in public. It is critical to reserve medical face masks for those who need them in the most dangerous situations.”’
In their statement to BuzzFeed News on Thursday, the Jo-Ann spokesperson broadened their previous focus on health care workers needing their masks to include “health care systems, at-risk organizations, and our communities.”
Both the World Health Organization and the CDC had initially advised ordinary citizens to avoid wearing masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, as masks are limited and should be kept for health care workers. But as the CDC weighs changing that recommendation — and homemade masks become commonplace — Jo-Ann management argued they were offering a necessary service for health care workers, even if the effectiveness of a nonsurgical mask remains unclear.
“I feel like the public is grossly misinformed about how well the masks work and the purpose for them,” said the Seattle-area Jo-Ann manager.
The first cluster outbreak in the United States happened within an hour's drive of her store, which meant that demand for masks at the store has been particularly high. But she believes the masks are just a publicity stunt, in order to keep stores open and move the focus away from workers complaining about the danger to their health. “It is at best a thinly veiled excuse to draw customers into the store so they buy more nonessential products,” said the manager.
Partly, that's because the mask program was announced without warning to stores, where staff members quickly found themselves without the required materials to assemble the mask kits.
“Initially I volunteered to help make the kits for this — I was led to believe this was something to actually help," said the Seattle-area manager. "The supply was not keeping up with the gigantic demand — we ran out of supplies within three hours of the first day."
Her store ran out of the interface material that is supposed to serve as a filter in the mask "within an hour on the first day." The store was already out of elastic before the free mask program was announced. "We have been using stretchy jewelry cord and bias tape as ties," she said. "The guidelines the hospital have requested specifically asked for a certain kind of material because it needs to withstand bleaching and cleaning by the hospital, and as far as I'm aware, we don't have anything like that."
The coronavirus is spread via droplets, such as when people cough. A well-fitted cotton mask may prevent the spread of the virus if a sick person is wearing it, but other guidelines are also needed, such as washing hands before and after putting on a mask and removing it, and washing a mask in hot water and soap after use.
The four employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News all feared they were risking their health because of masks that were not even suitable for use.
"I have no idea why people are falling for this," said the Bay Area manager, who noted her store was out of elastic and none of the fabric is sanitized or washed. "It’s better than nothing — but put a T-shirt over your face, it’s going to be just as sufficient."
Mayor Garcetti noted that “research shows even a bandana tucked in can have an effect at slowing down droplets’ spread.” (There is likely some added benefit to wearing something that is more closely fitted to the face than a T-shirt or bandana.)
Continuing to have customers come in store — rather than just purchasing online or for curbside pickup — also increases the risk of spreading the disease, even if people are coming in partly to grab mask kits. “Staying open and having these wild crowds — we’re understaffed and not cleaning things — we’re just exacerbating the issue,” said the employee near Columbus. “It felt like we were making the problem we were trying to solve worse.”
The Bay Area manager said she's been told by customers that hospitals are rejecting the masks (personal protective equipment, or PPE, requirements and what donations are accepted often changes by individual facility). "Customers are calling us, telling us, 'No one wants these masks, what do I do with them?’” said the Bay Area manager.
A Jo-Ann spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that although the masks are “not medical grade,” they are being made per CDC guidelines and have been accepted by some hospitals. The spokesperson would not say how many masks had been donated to hospitals. Jo-Ann has launched a daily count showing how close the company is to its 100 million mask goal. As of Thursday, it's closing in on 20 million.
"The CDC has recently ruled home crafted masks as acceptable crisis response options when other supplies have been exhausted, and all masks collected will only go to those hospitals and healthcare systems that are accepting them at this time," said a Jo-Ann spokesperson in a statement.
But that might be an overstatement of CDC guidelines, which instead suggest homemade masks such as a bandana or scarf may be used as a “last resort” for health care workers when face masks are unavailable, and should not be considered proper PPE, as it’s unclear how effective they are at stopping the transmission of COVID-19 in a health care setting.
"While these items are not medical grade," the Jo-Ann spokesperson continued, "they have been created using fabric and materials recommended for medical settings, and we have provided donations of the completed masks to hospitals around the country who are in need, and have requested them."
A fabric mask won't be as protective as a surgical or N95 mask, and some hospitals are not accepting homemade fabric masks. “Caution should be exercised when considering this option,” warns the CDC.
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In an FAQ on its site about how Jo-Ann is handling COVID-19, the company’s response is a question about how it is caring for its “own people in the midst of the pandemic" focuses on the mask program. "We’ve made provisions for employees who choose to take leave during the coronavirus crisis," reads the statement. "At the same time, we believe this program will give others the opportunity to contribute to their local communities by facilitating the production of gear for medical professionals and their patients in need."
"Specifically, Jo-Ann provides custom cuts of fabric, elastic and clear vinyl that are later finished into gowns and face masks," it reads. "Hospital systems have begun reaching out directly to Jo-Ann to help provide these needed goods. Jo-Ann must be able to continue to supply these materials to customers who are making these finished goods and donating them to hospitals. Jo-Ann’s business is vital to the supply chain for both Illinois small businesses as well as its front line healthcare professionals.”
But Illinois — along with some other states with stay-at-home orders in place, including Maryland and New York — determined Jo-Ann was nonessential and must shut.
The letter from Michigan's attorney general on Monday specifically addresses the company's claim that it sells fabric for face masks and hospital scrubs, noting that these could continue via online orders:
Your letter dated March 24, 2020, indicates that Jo-Ann Fabrics remains open to the public based on the company’s belief that its on-site operations are necessary to sustain and protect lives because “hundreds of hospitals and thousands of generous volunteers are turning to Jo-Ann” for raw materials like custom cut fabric, marine vinyl, crafting foam, and other goods that are finished into face masks, face shields and hospital scrubs and gowns.
We appreciate the contributions that you have devoted to addressing the current crisis. Nevertheless, while certain products from your store may be used to craft personal protective equipment, the Governor’s Order carefully balances the danger to the public and to workers when on-site operations continue versus the need for those on-site operations to sustain and protect life.
Over half of Jo-Ann stores have closed to the public, but certain states and counties — including California and Pennsylvania — have allowed stores to remain open or allow curbside pickup for online purchases, even with stay-at-home orders in place.
The Portland employee argued that people could make masks using old T-shirts and pillowcases, rather than putting her and her colleagues at risk. "They could try and source materials at home before going out and exposing other people and themselves," she said.
The employees told BuzzFeed News the mask kits might just be a welcome distraction for customers in a scary uncertain time. "It’s more a craft project for people to feel safe," said the Bay Area manager.
The Seattle-area manager recently gave one mask pack to a thrilled customer whose son works as an EMT. "These masks gave them a sense of control over the situation and peace of mind, knowing they were helping out," she said. "That’s the only benefit I see to these mask kits. Not so much how effective they are against the disease, but the mental and emotional comfort it gives to the common person.”
But that doesn't help Jo-Ann workers who fear catching the virus because their store won't close to the public. "People coming in just for craft supplies — because you're bored, but your craft supplies aren't more important than our health," said the staffer from Portland.
"It’s such a clusterfuck," said the Bay Area manager. "I hope Jo-Ann survives this because I need a job. But the second the dust settles and we can start looking for another job, we’re gone, because their response to this is horrible."