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COVID-19

A WA company sells masks with air holes. Health experts say they offer 'limited to no' benefit

A gray face mask lies on a wooden table.
Parker Miles Blohm
/
KNKX
The UnMask is made by a Washington state company. At first glance, it looks like a typical face mask, but upon closer look, it has small holes.

Sleek, promotional images and videos of the masks popped up on Facebook and right-leaning online spaces like the social-media platform Parler. Those images drove orders, and the masks arrived on customers’ doorsteps all over the U.S. and as far away as Australia.

People say they wear them over their faces on planes and in grocery stores. Workers say they wear them in restaurants, offices, clothing shops and warehouses. They’ve appeared on children’s faces in schools and on teens’ faces at sports tournaments.

At first glance, they look like the face coverings federal officials recommend — and Washington state officials still require in many public settings — as a proven method for reducing the pandemic’s toll.

But, upon closer look, these masks have holes.

Based on the company’s marketing, that’s the point: to provide customers a way to quietly subvert public health rules.

The masks come from Washington state. A Spokane-area company, UnMask, has spent much of the pandemic selling face coverings designed to look like they comply with public health mandates and guidelines. But, experts say, these masks have limited to no effect at reducing the coronavirus’ spread.

As coronavirus cases drop, leaders in Washington and other states are rolling back mask mandates. Interviews with UnMask customers, and a review of the company’s marketing, provide a look at one effort to capitalize on the confusion and skepticism that has spread around masking over the past two years.

“I pretty much think all of the masks are pretty much just a show, just a way to control everybody,” said Melissa Lee Schultz, 50, a mail carrier in Ohio who bought the porous masks for herself and her teenage son.

It also shows the extent to which, in some right-leaning circles, masks became examples of performative liberal politics or symbols of acquiescence to government.

UnMask has capitalized on the culture war.

A close-up view of a mask shows it's covered in small holes.
Parker Miles Blohm
/
KNKX
A close-up view of the mesh-like UnMask.

“We at UnMask are fans of freedom and not fans of masks,” the company wrote in a July message to more than 1,800 Facebook followers. “We created the UnMask so men, women and children who are forced to mask up had a way of complying with ridiculous mask mandates, while still being able to breathe.”

The company says it has sold more than 100,000 of its masks all over the world, marketing them to customers who reject the scientific consensus: that suitable masks, properly worn, reduce the risk of people contracting a virus that has killed more than 900,000 people in the U.S. and overwhelmed health-care providers with more than four million hospitalizations.

UnMask co-founder Jeff O’Shea, an entrepreneur in Liberty Lake, Washington, did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone, email and Facebook message. He did not reply to a detailed list of questions sent by email and Facebook message.

Co-founder Mick Sakakeeny, another Liberty Lake entrepreneur, also did not respond to requests for comment or a list of questions sent via Facebook message.

One of their video advertisements, viewed more than 30,000 times on YouTube, shows a woman working out at a gym while wearing one of the porous masks.

A message flashes across the screen: “Demand your freedom to breathe.”

‘LIMITED TO NO PROTECTION’

UnMask’s website says its masks are designed “to help reduce the spread of droplets leaving your mouth or nose” while still allowing “virtually unrestricted airflow.”

But, if the masks are designed to protect people, they’re badly flawed, said two University of Washington experts who study the use of face coverings to keep workers safe during the pandemic.

“I would say that this provides limited to no protection for the wearer or for anyone the wearer is interacting with,” said Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. She examined UnMask’s “ultra” model.

Cloth masks work by catching the particles we spew from our noses and mouths when we breathe, talk, cough or sneeze. They offer some protection to the wearer, but mostly protect other people from the wearer.

Well-fitting respirators — such as N95 or KN95 masks — do even more (as long as they don’t have an exhalation valve, as some do). Respirators filter most particles going into or out of the mask, even very small ones, offering extra protection to both the wearer and people around them.

But an UnMask mask is different.

An inner layer is made of a thin, see-through mesh. Depending on the model, an outer layer may be dotted with air holes, similar to an athletic jersey or a net that exposes the skin underneath.

“If they're trying to reduce the amount of particles emitted by the wearer, the fabric probably should be less porous,” said a UW expert on masks who asked for anonymity out of concern about retaliation. The expert examined UnMask’s “ultra” and “sport” models.

The UW expert said wearing the porous masks could be better than wearing nothing at all, but it wasn’t clear. If they do offer some protection, they may provide a slight public health benefit by getting people who would otherwise go completely unmasked to at least wear something on their faces.

“I don't know if I'm being too willing to accept that, but you know, I'm open minded,” the expert said.

The Washington secretary of health’s mask mandate that’s been in place since last September says masks must include “at least one layer of tightly woven fabric without visible holes.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask mandate for people traveling by plane and other modes of transportation says masks should be a “solid piece of material” without “punctures.”

But no state or federal agency contacted by KNKX claimed responsibility for ensuring the cloth masks many people have worn throughout the pandemic meet those standards. Those masks are bought and sold on an unregulated market.

‘MASKS WORK’

UnMask customers expressed an array of views about the coronavirus. Some were vaccinated. Some had recovered from COVID-19. Some lost relatives to it.

But, nearly two years into the pandemic, all of them expressed misunderstandings about the role masks play and how they work.

“We are 100% anti-mask,” said Leah Fotia McCarthy, a customer in South Carolina who said she bought the porous masks for her family to wear on an April flight. “We don't think they work to prevent the spread, and I won't comply to the nonsense.”

Experts said evolving mask guidance over the past two years may have added to misunderstanding and doubt, helping create conditions that companies like UnMask have taken advantage of. Public health officials’ advice and standards around masks changed as scientists gained more understanding about how the coronavirus, and its more contagious variants, spread.

“I get it,” said Baker. “But the facts are simple. Masks work. They work in reducing the spread of both large and small particles that contain the virus. The type of mask influences how well it might stop the spread.”

Some UnMask customers said they were drawn to a product they felt allowed them to breathe more freely.

Shanna Pyka, 44, a customer in California, said she suffers from asthma and wearing a conventional mask made her feel like she was having a “panic attack.” Karen Nicholson, 58, a customer in Australia, said she grew uncomfortable working six- to 10-hour shifts in a warehouse without air conditioning.

An extreme closeup of a piece of fabric with small holes
Parker Miles Blohm
/
KNKX
“I would say that this provides limited to no protection for the wearer or for anyone the wearer is interacting with,” Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, said of the UnMask.

But Baker said that while face coverings can get hot or sweaty after a while, it’s a misconception that they block oxygen or cause carbon dioxide to build up. Tiny oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules pass through the materials easily while larger, virus-carrying particles get trapped. Most people with asthma can safely wear face coverings, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a nonprofit that advocates for people with asthma.

“Masks should not hamper your breathing,” Baker said. “They do not lead to a buildup of CO2 or lack of oxygen. Masks do allow for you to breathe, even an N95 respirator.”

Some UnMask customers pointed to examples of people who wear masks getting sick as a sign masks don’t work.

In reality, experts said, no single public health strategy is meant to offer perfect defense to any one person. Many imperfect strategies layered on top of one another — such as widespread masking, vaccines, adequate ventilation and avoiding crowded spaces — are meant to reduce the risk to the population as a whole.

“If every single person is wearing a cloth mask and that only reduces the spread by 20 or 30 percent, that still has an enormous impact on the number of our friends and family and neighbors that are getting sick and ending up in the hospital,” Baker said.

“While you may feel that it doesn't individually protect you, you are doing your part to help protect your community,” she added. “And when you're in a mask like the one here, a porous mask, it's absolutely no benefit to anybody except the company you bought it from.”

‘DIRTY LITTLE SECRET’

UnMask began posting on Facebook in the pandemic’s first year, advertising masks that cost about $20 each and come in different colors and patterns, including camouflage.

From the very beginning, the company’s online statements emphasized a political stance against masks over any potential benefits to public health.

“We hate face masks!” said the company’s first available Facebook post, from September 2020.

O’Shea wrote on the company’s website that he and Sakakeeny are “long-time business partners.” According to their LinkedIn profiles, O’Shea co-founded an electronics company called IntelliTouch in 1988 and Sakakeeny served as chief executive, and they both worked in recent years at a company called Spectrio.

Then, at the height of the pandemic, the two business partners “were sick and tired of battling aggressive mask mandates and set out to bring a compliant solution to those who felt the same,” O’Shea wrote.

They started UnMask in a state that ranks near the top nationally for some measures of anti-science sentiment around the pandemic, according to the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle nonprofit that tracks far-right extremism.

Washington has the third highest number of Facebook groups that promote “COVID denial” and the third highest number of residents who are members of those groups, according to a review by the organization.

“It's not a surprise that the company is based in Washington state,” said Devin Burghart, the group’s executive director, “in part because anti-masking and kind of COVID denial activism has been really strong here in the state since the beginning of the pandemic.”

Anti-masking politics, he said, have fused with other movements on the right, such as pushback against teaching the history of racism in schools.

For some people, it’s also an “on-ramp” to more extreme anti-government and conspiratorial politics, Burghart said.

“People who are involved in anti-masking politics are far more likely to become anti-vaxxers,” he said. “They're far more likely to develop a conspiratorial worldview. And more and more we're seeing them move from policies around the pandemic into more far-right activity, including militancy around the elections.”

O’Shea, the UnMask co-founder, calls Facebook a “dispicable [sic] organization,” writing on UnMask’s website last July that the social media platform “has consistently rejected our ads, pulled ads down that were approved and running and are trying everything in their power to limit our reach.”

But the company maintains a Facebook page where, last month, it posted a fake, satirical interview with the national public health figure Dr. Anthony Fauci. It’s laced with conspiratorial fantasies popular on the far right, like the idea that mask mandates are part of a government plot to create a compliant population.

Throughout the pandemic, the company has used its online presence to appeal to people who don’t want to comply with public health rules but instead get away with defying them.

The company advertised its masks as a “dirty little secret” that would allow air travelers to get past mandates on planes.

“The UnMask has the appearance of a regular cloth mask, but is made of Ultra-light super-breathable materials that allow it to go unquestioned, even by the most ‘woke’ sky ‘Karens,’ ” O’Shea wrote on the company’s website last June.

But, a few months later, O’Shea wrote that some airline staff had caught onto the porous masks and started cracking down on customers wearing them. Some school officials, he wrote, had also sought to ban the masks from schools.

“Unfortunately, the brand has attracted the attention of some of the same people that are intent on taking our freedoms away and demanding that we comply with their freedom sucking, tyrannical mandates,” O’Shea wrote.

Sakakeeny took a similar tone, writing in the same post: "As long as the forces in the government keep trying to muzzle us and our kids, count on our small company to keep making the most breathable masks on the planet and give you virtually unrestricted access to all the places that masks are required.”

O’Shea’s solution: He advised customers to start cutting off the labels.

KNKX special projects reporter Will James is looking into extremism, radicalization and misinformation. You can follow him on Twitter at the handle: @otherwilljames. Send tips or feedback to his email, wjames@knkx.org.

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COVID-19 COVID-19maskscoronavirusPublic Health
Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.