Covid-19: Designer face masks are going for US$200 a pop online

Paltrow's designer face mask by Aurinium has become a new symbol of inequality at a time when protective equipment for medical workers is in woefully short supply. — Instagram/@gwynethpaltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow posted an Instagram photo Monday on her way back from the farmer’s market. In it, she’s wearing a black dress and a matching black face mask. Her label of choice for the latter is a Swedish company called Airinum AB.

Designer face masks have been around for at least a decade, a niche market catering to the chronically sick along with frequenters of Burning Man and fashionistas in Beijing. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, they are a coveted accessory for wealthy people around the globe. And for others, they’re a new symbol of inequality at a time when protective equipment for medical workers is in woefully short supply.

@bradfalchuk and I were grateful to learn our local farmers market was open this morning; we walked there (keeping lots of distance) and donned masks and gloves once we got nearer to the market, only taking them off when we were almost home and there were no other pedestrians in close proximity. Yesterday I heard tales of crowded hiking trails and parks. Although we are all on a learning curve and aren’t always perfect as we figure out this temporary new normal, we must take the orders seriously and not abuse the freedoms we still have; grocery store and essential errand runs, bike rides or walks (being disciplined about correct protocol). It’s not the time for denial. We must take this seriously and shelter in place. It’s time for nesting, reading, cleaning out closets, doing something you’ve always wanted to do (write a book, learn an instrument or a language or learn to code online, draw or paint) going through photos, cooking, and reconnecting on a deeper level with the people you love. I find hope in the generosity, love, protection and care I see and feel through out our country everyday and my heart goes out to everyone directly affected or simply in fear. We will get through and I bet you our humanity will shine like never before

A post shared by Gwyneth Paltrow (@gwynethpaltrow) on Mar 22, 2020 at 4:44pm PDT

Airinum and other popular makers of trendy masks, including Cambridge Mask Co and Vogmask, typically sell products in an assortment of colours and sizes and tout advanced air filtration and memory foam fitting for the wearer’s nose. Unlike paper masks often used by health care professionals, these can be washed and reused.

The products are normally priced at US$12 (RM53) for a basic black Cambridge mask or as much as US$69 (RM302) for a pearl pink Airinum. But those two companies are out of stock until at least next month. Airinums have sold for more than US$200 (RM877) apiece on EBay in the last week and Vogmasks for about US$150 (RM658) on average.

EBay Inc, along with Inc and other online retailers, have come under pressure for enabling sellers to price gouge on essentials like masks and hand sanitisers. In response, the companies said they would ban such listings. The high-end masks exist in something of a gray area because they’re luxury products by design.

In the eyes of government officials, though, they’re still masks. San Francisco-based Vogmask manufactures all of its products in South Korea, which enacted an export ban this month on medical masks. Wendover Brown, the company’s co-founder, said 80,000 finished and packaged products are waiting in a warehouse near Incheon, unable to pass through customs. "The product is just sitting there, not helping anyone,” Brown said. Vogmask is now exploring options to manufacture in the US.

The global mask shortage is a severe problem for medical staff. Apple Inc and Facebook Inc are among companies helping source and donate masks to hospitals, and officials have urged people not to hoard them. Christian Siriano, a prominent fashion designer, and the French workshops of Balenciaga started producing masks to shore up supplies for health care workers.

It’s in this light that Paltrow’s pandemic glamor shot attracted some outrage. In comments on the post, several people chastised the actress for being tone deaf and urged her to donate the mask to a health care worker and advocate for others to do so. "Medical staff have been begging people to contribute these,” one person wrote. "These should only be available to those on the front lines.”

A spokeswoman for Paltrow declined to comment. On Wednesday, Paltrow posted on Instagram saying she and her husband had donated to the Frontline Responders Fund, which is raising US$10mil (RM43.33mil) to get critical supplies to workers combatting the virus. – Bloomberg

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