Mask shortage potential problem

A man walks along Essex St. in Salem recently. As more businesses look to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks have become mandatory in public.JAIME CAMPOS/Staff photo

BOSTON — With face masks now required in public and more businesses seeking to reopen, experts say competition for protective gear could lead to new shortages.

Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order two weeks ago requiring masks in grocery stores, taxis, public transit and other places where social distancing isn't possible. A plan to gradually reopen the state's economy unveiled Monday says businesses must require workers and customers to cover their faces.

Baker has said masks need to "become the norm" as the state continues to battle the COVID-19 outbreak and takes baby steps towards reopening the economy.

To be sure, officials stress the use of face coverings and homemade masks for the public, not surgical masks or the N-95 respirators worn by medical workers. While evidence is mixed on whether non-surgical masks prevent infection, experts say they improve a person's chances of not getting sick or infecting others.

But the mask mandate means that small businesses will be competing in the global marketplace against large corporations and state and local governments for higher quality protective gear that has been in short supply.

Darren Ambler, chairman of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said business owners are struggling to find new supply chains for protective gear.

"It's going to be one of the biggest problems as businesses try to reopen," he said. "They put a safety road map together for their business that includes wearing masks, but they can't get the equipment to fulfill it."

Ambler said the Chamber is weighing a shared purchasing plan for North Shore businesses to buy protective gear.

Due to increased need, dozens of Massachusetts manufacturers have shifted to making masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment. The state has made $10 million in grants available to local companies to produce the gear.

Supply chain experts say with many manufacturers and distributors operating below capacity, the market for protective gear benefits big players.

"They're focusing on big orders — not just because of profits — but because that's how you serve the most people," said Yossi Sheffi, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "From a supply chain perspective, it's absolutely the right strategy."

Sheffi, director of MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics, said he expects those kinks to be worked out as manufacturers bring back more workers and ramp up production.

But he said the shortage of respirator masks for front line health care workers remains a pressing issue that has been compounded by a lack of coordination by the federal government.

"We just don't have enough respirators for medical workers," Sheffi said. "And it's not likely that we will have enough in the near future."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at


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