Masks or no masks for the general public? The messaging pivoted like a sailboat running downwind then upwind. All along states reported a scarcity of masks approved by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The type of masks needed by health care workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In early April, the CDC reversed course — that 180 degree pivot — and began recommending the use of cloth masks in areas where the community transmission of Covid-19 was possible. Many of us are now heeding the CDC’s recommendation and wear cloth masks in public spaces. The CDC is not recommending everyday use of medical grade masks — surgical masks or N95 masks — since they remain scarce. Those masks, it is suggested, should be set aside for use by medical professionals.
Enter the hat-makers.
St. Paul, Minnesota based BeFAST Sportgear (an advertiser with FasterSkier) executed a pivot of their own. BeFAST has been in business for nine years and specializes in winter headwear: hats, headbands, and neckbands. They sell online, at retail outlets, and produce small batch custom orders for teams and organizations.
According BeFAST founder Diane Schember, the company is small with the ability to scale up or down when market pressures dictate a change of course. “I use manufacturing facilities to do the bulk of our main product line — we do a factory run once a year. That provides the base of our products, the basic black and white units, things that are staples in our inventory we produce on a larger scale.”
When a small quick-turnaround-batch is produced, Schember relies on a cadre of local sewers to fulfill the order. Small size companies like BeFAST remain an asset when considering evolving market needs and designs. If tastes in hat design evolve mid-season, BeFAST can change course and ramp up. They are nimble. Product development, prototyping, and market introduction, even on short notice, is not a disruption to their bottom line.
“A lot of times our customers have creative ideas more so than us,” said Schember. “So we will follow that and create a product and get it in their hands and get them using it. And then if the feedback is positive, then we will launch it. And that may be in the middle of the season, it may be in June, it may be whenever. We have got the ability to react pretty quickly to customer demand.”
During the current pandemic, Schember and BeFAST possess in demand skill sets: the ability to design soft goods and work with fabric to produce masks.
For the past six weeks, beyond consuming Covid-19 news, Schember prepped next season’s production run. She shipped raw materials and finalized patterns. Concurrent with those demands, customers began asking if BeFAST was going to produce non-medical grade face coverings,.
“So Covid is creeping and creeping and creeping in, my customers started to ask me, ‘oh so are you going to do anything, are you going to make masks?’ I was like, ‘Oh no, you know, I don’t know that I can gear up to do that.’”
As each day passed, the news was the same: more Covid-19 infections and health care workers without N-95 masks available. And the questions about BeFAST’s roll in the mask supply chain persisted.
Schember felt compelled to help. She reviewed the CDC’s recommendations and fashioned a mask combining ease of use while maximizing facial coverage. BeFAST masks feature a malleable wire nose piece for a custom fit, a spandex blend for snugness across the face, with elastic fasteners behind the ears. The masks are washable and reusable.
Schember explained that BeFAST is not profiting from its masks sales – they are covering their costs while still manufacturing locally with the use of local sewers. The intent is to sell cloth masks to the public while getting the available supply of medical grade masks to hospitals and first responders.
For now, BeFAST is positioned to remain open for business despite the lack of profits and the global economic downturn. “I am fortunate that we are in a situation where I feel that this is my contribution to the healthcare community right now, and that we can do it,” Schember said. “We are using fabric that has been in our warehouse that we have not been using. We are also using remnants from this season, we have a lot of colors, a lot of options. From that side of it, I feel like I am doing an environmentally sound thing where I am using the materials I have to meet a need, meet a demand.”
An ABC News/IPSOS poll published on April 10, finds nearly half of all Americans leaving home use a face mask or face covering. Masks are not a Covid-19 panacea; they play a role in a trifecta of protocols to minimize community spread that includes fidelity to social distancing and regular hand washing.
BeFAST is one of several soft goods manufacturers in the outdoor space making a difference. True to their racing roots, Schember said she is channeling an at-the-start-line singular focus to help problem solve.
“We are all about attitude, we like to say we sell attitude,” Schember said of BeFAST. “And I think with this type of situation everybody has a feeling about how we got to where we are today. Some are angry, some don’t understand it, everybody has an attitude about it. And I feel like it aligns with our core values: that if you are facing the challenges and you are at the start line, you have got to have some attitude to get out there and do stuff.”
Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.