Arlington-based mask manufacturer United States Mask couldn’t keep up with the demand for its N95 masks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two years later, the company, started in Fort Worth, is struggling with sales as COVID-19 cases declined and pandemic policies changed. The biggest blow came when the Biden administration started distributing free N95 masks in pharmacies and community health centers across the nation.
“We always knew we would be competing with cheap overseas imports,” said John Bielamowicz, co-founder of the company. “What we did not expect was to compete with free.”
United States Mask has plans to start selling other personal protective equipment and safety products to stay afloat. Bielamowicz says companies like his need more help from the federal government. Since March, the company has been lobbying members of Congress to come up with a plan that would support mid-sized mask manufacturers.
Bielamowicz and his co-founder, David Baillargeon, launched the company because they saw a need to produce N95 masks for Americans and first responders at a time when there was a shortage. They did it out of patriotic duty, without government aid, Bielamowicz said, so they deserve, at the minimum, to compete on a level playing field.
“We’re trying to balance staying in business and growing at the same time,” Bielamowicz said.
Bielamowicz has been going to the Capitol monthly since March this year to speak with the House Armed Services Committee and Energy and Commerce Committee. He also reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee.
“We deserve to be part of the solution when we did it out of patriotic duty when others waited to be paid to do it,” Bielamowicz said.
U.S. Reps. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, and Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, have visited the company to show their support, according to the company. Both congressmen represent parts of Tarrant County. Eshoo’s office, Ellzey and Burgess did not respond to requests to comment.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, visited the company on June 1. Veasey said his goal is to have policies that keep American companies competitive.
Veasey, who also serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, said he’ll speak with Eshoo about the company’s struggles as well.
How it started
The idea of manufacturing N95 masks in the U.S. came to them at the start of the pandemic. People around Bielamowicz spoke of the N95 mask shortage, including the medical professionals who saved his son’s life after he was born with 80% of his left diaphragm missing.
Bielamowicz and his business partner also tried to get their hands on N95 masks, the gold standard of respiratory protection. But they had no luck either, so they decided to produce the masks in Fort Worth, where the company was located initially.
They acted on the idea in February 2020. They searched for domestic material suppliers. In April 2020, they registered the website for $1.99. With no trouble obtaining the domain, Bielamowicz said it was a sign that nobody was trying to produce masks domestically amid the shortage.
Getting a site ready and supplies were the easy part. Manufacturing N95 masks was not. United States Mask spent the summer of 2020 figuring out how to make the respirator.
“Like Thomas Edison said, ‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just found a thousand ways to not make a light bulb,’” Bielamowicz said. “Well, we found more than a thousand ways not to make an N95.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health approved and certified the company to make N95 masks in October 2020. The institute is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Success and backlash
The company’s heyday came in January 2021, when it sold nearly 400,000 N95 masks in a weekend. United States Mask had 42 employees at the peak of its business in late spring 2021, Bielamowicz said. The only limit was how many masks could be produced.
The largest request from customers was to produce high-quality masks for children. The company started manufacturing the “Kid95” mask, which was made with the same materials, machinery, and tested to the same filtration and breathability requirements as their adult N95 respirators, except smaller to fit children.
After the company launched a Facebook ad for Kid95, some criticized the company for the perception it wanted to make all children wear masks, Bielamowicz said. The incident prompted United States Mask to stop advertising on the platform.
“We’re not here to make anybody do anything,” Bielamowicz said. “We’re here to give people a choice to have the best that they can have.”
Many counties, universities and hospitals are buying imported masks without verifying the authenticity of those products because they’re going for the lowest bid, said Jana Lynne Sanchez, spokesperson for Project N95.
Project N95, a national nonprofit organization founded at the start of the pandemic, aims to make high-quality masks, such as N95s and KN95s, more accessible and affordable for Americans.
For imported KN95s, it’s almost impossible to verify its authenticity, where it came from and who made it, Sanchez said. Project N95, however, verifies its supply chain and has its own testing laboratory to ensure the effectiveness of the respirators it receives.
United States Mask is working with the nonprofit to become one of its suppliers as the company produces one of the only high quality masks for children in the country, she said.
“We didn’t expect to be relevant in this pandemic at all,” Bielamowicz said. “We just believe that things like N95 ought to be made here in this country.”
The mask shortage showed how vulnerable the country was, Sanchez said. It’s important to have a strong national production of respirators for security, health and economic purposes.
“Too many Americans were walking around with masks that weren’t good,” she said. “So having a domestic supply of reliable masks is very good for our national defense. We can protect ourselves better if we know that these masks are made to a high standard and locally.”
Veasey, the Fort Worth Democrat, echoed Sanchez. It’s important to have products, not just masks, to be made in America, he said.
“When we can get DFW companies to do it, then that’s even better,” he said.
Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.