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Factories Around The World Try To Resolve Mask Shortages


Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has created this free-for-all in the search for facemasks. And that has some factories moving from producing their usual goods to making masks. NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us the story of those who are caught up in this mask-making frenzy.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Before COVID-19, Mike Crotty's company Golden Pacific Fashion and Design, based in Shanghai, sold curtains. But since the global economy ground to a halt, nobody is buying curtains; they're buying masks.

MICHAEL CROTTY: It's pandemonium at its highest level. It's the Wild West. And it really is a unique situation where these factories that can make these goods are in the driver's seat at the moment.

SCHMITZ: Fortunate for Crotty, his Chinese suppliers have quickly converted curtain-making assembly lines into mask-making ones. Crotty's company now manufacturers the KN95, the Chinese version of 3M's popular N95 mask. His suppliers' factories are able to make at least 15 million masks a week.

CROTTY: So now I'm busier than I've been in a long time. The only significant difference is, you know, in the curtain business, we had 10 customers. It was a simple process.

SCHMITZ: But now he says he's getting calls from hospitals, schools - even, he says, people who claim to be close to the prime minister of India and the president of Turkey.

CROTTY: I was told that Erdogan mandated that every Turkish citizen was to be given five free masks. Now, there's about 83 million people in Turkey; that's just one country.

SCHMITZ: Crotty says he's heard the stories of shady state actors plopping down wads of cash to divert planes filled with masks to their countries. That's not how he does business, he says. But money does talk. He says a colleague was about to escort a customer to a supplier in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou recently when the supplier called to cancel when another customer plopped down half a million dollars for an order.

Crotty says his suppliers are in the unusual position of being in the driver's seat, and they're asking for at least a 50% deposit before taking an order. Fulfilling an order, though, especially if it's headed to the U.S., can be a challenge. In order to crack down on fakes, Chinese customs has begun inspecting exports labeled for medical use. That can cause massive delays for exports to U.S. hospitals.

CROTTY: So then you say to the hospital - we can get it out of China customs, but you're going to have to label it for commercial or personal use, not for medical purpose. And then U.S. Customs is going to look at that for a hospital group and they say, they're not using this for medical use?

SCHMITZ: That's why, says Crotty, there are shipping containers from China filled with masks sitting in the Port of Los Angeles. U.S. Customs won't release them to U.S. hospitals because they aren't labeled properly. On the other side of the world in Prague, another industry man, Brian Yamato, has also converted some of his assembly lines to masks. He works for Dukane, and they sell ultrasonic welding equipment to mask manufacturers. So they thought, why not make our own masks?

BRIAN YAMATO: And we just started kind of setting up and experimenting and working with it. We went through I think our fourth mask design now.

SCHMITZ: Yamato's company has made 50,000 masks, but he hasn't sold a single one. He's donated them to the Czech government. At first, he says, he was worried about not having the right certifications for his brand-new mask line - the EU is a tough place for a new product like this. But he was assured by the Czechs that it wouldn't be a problem. This is, they told him, an emergency, and the entire world has never seen anything like it.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAUSCHKA'S "STROMNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.

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