Ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year, the demand for face masks has skyrocketed. In April 2020, President Donald Trump established the Defense Production Act to boost face mask supply in the country. Seeing a huge market opportunity, new players jumped into producing face masks while existing manufacturers expanded their production. However, America’s face mask industry is now facing a huge threat: cheap face masks from communist China.
In May, the American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA) sent a letter to President Joe Biden highlighting challenges faced by their industry. AMMA represents 26 small business mask manufacturers with a combined manufacturing capacity of 3.69 billion surgical masks and 1.06 billion N-95 style respirators. This production capacity was created in less than a year while also employing more than 7,800 “good-paying jobs.”
The letter highlighted the main problem of Chinese mask imports – cheap prices. It states that Chinese masks are being sold in the United States for less than $0.01. However, the cost of raw materials that go into making these masks is around $0.03 to $0.06, something which is “the same everywhere in the world.”
A key filtration material in surgical and N95 masks is meltblown. Three AMMA members can make their own meltblown for around $3 to $4 per pound. However, China is selling N95 quality meltblown for just $1.22 per pound. Due to this cheap Chinese pricing, one of the AMMA members even halted its production.
The letter also cites multiple studies to assert that the quality of Chinese masks fails to meet American standards. National and private healthcare entities that purchase Chinese face masks “have filled their warehouses with cheap, ineffective Chinese products” which pose a risk to citizens. It accused communist China of dumping masks in the U.S. at “well below actual costs,” making American manufacturers unable to compete. Around 260 million American-produced masks are sitting idle, stocked in warehouses.
“If China is allowed to continue dumping masks for a fraction of the costs of materials, we will be more dependent on China for PPE than before the pandemic—putting our healthcare workers at risk for current and future pandemics. These unfair trade practices threaten the viability of our industry and the welfare of every single American. This is not only a matter of national security but of national pride,” the letter said.
AMMA asked the government to (a) require entities receiving federal dollars for PPE reimbursement to buy American masks; (b) remove masks that fail American standards; and (c) require organizations and hospitals receiving federal funds to secure 40 percent of their PPE from domestic sources by 2023. The organization also asked Washington to buy the 260 million masks sitting in their warehouses to fill its Strategic National Stockpile.
One of the casualties of cheap Chinese mask imports is Premium PPE, a mask manufacturer from Virginia which has laid off large portions of its workforce after a massive drop in production.
The company’s monthly mask output had fallen by almost 90 percent from last year’s peak. Its workforce has declined from 280 people to just 50. Unsold merchandise and idle equipment fill up its factory. The company fully blames communist China for its situation.
“Selling the mask for less than a penny is not possible,” Brent Dillie, the chief revenue officer, said to Nikkei Asia. American-made masks can cost anywhere between 10 to 15 cents.
In an interview with The New York Times in late May, Dillie warned that the industry is in a “break-glass mode.” Within six months, many of the mask manufacturers “won’t be around,” which won’t be good for America the next time a national health emergency hits.
The 27 members of AMMA are said to have cut their workforce by 50 percent. Lloyd Armbrust, the organization’s president, stated that “unfair pressure from China” risks killing the industry. AMMA plans to file a complaint against communist China at the World Trade Organization for unfair trade practices.
“This is full-on economic warfare… China is on the mission to make sure no one in the industry survives, and so far they’re winning,” Luis Arguello Jr., vice president of DemeTech, a medical-suture company in Florida, told The New York Times. His company laid off 1,500 workers in May who were employed in producing surgical masks.
Chinese-made face masks have been involved in several scandals as well. In April 2020, Beijing sent masks made from underwear to Pakistan.
“In the name of top-quality N95 masks, China has sent in masks made out of underwear. It was also a lacuna on the part of the provincial health authorities who received the medical aid. Without proper checking, the masks were sent to Qatar hospital in Karachi. Over there, the doctors and para-medical staff called it buffooning by China,” a local news channel reported.
In the Netherlands, local media reported in March 2020 that the government was forced to recall a large part of the masks imported from communist China that were distributed in hospitals. The masks were assessed to be faulty. Out of the 1.3 million masks imported, 600,000 were shipped back to the communist regime.