Coronavirus impact: mask scarcity

From a Home Depot in New Jersey to a chain of hardware stores in Texas, respiratory masks have flown off the shelves.

Retailers say distributors have set maximum order limits on respiratory masks, and 3M says it is increasing global production of personal protective equipment products – including respirators – in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Regardless of the ability of safety masks to mitigate the spread of the virus, they are in tremendous demand by hardware store customers.

Carr Hardware & Supply felt the demand at all eight of its locations. “Yesterday a person came into our Springfield, Mass., store and bought every mask we had in stock,” Said Geoffrey Webb, marketing director, in an e-mail message. Separately, a customer in Pittsfield, Mass., bought 11 cartons of masks, each containing 10 masks each. (She agreed to have her photo taken.)

“All of our stores have been replenished and we currently have a substantial supply in our own warehouse,” Webb said.

In a Home Depot in New Jersey, the shelves for opening-price-point masks were empty on Sunday night. "In the US, we are seeing increased demand for face masks and have limited purchase quantity to 10 per person to best serve as many customers as possible," said Home Depot spokeswoman Margaret Smith. "Our merchandising and supply chain teams are working hard to replenish these items as quickly as possible."

Gone: opening-price point safety masks at a Home Depot store in New Jersey.

Five-location Elliott's Hardware in Texas sold out of respiratory masks over the weekend. It is able to restock, for now.

Retailer members of Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Do it Best Corp. have seen huge consumer demand for masks. "Our member stores have ordered nearly all of our in-stock N95 masks," said Randy Rusk, VP of communications for Do it Best. "We placed emergency orders for what would be a normal year's worth of demand and all of that has either shipped or has been reserved by our members."

Rusk added that one of the co-op's vendors shared that total demand in the past week far exceeded normal production. Rusk also pointed to a safety-mask irony: "According to the CDC, these masks have little to no impact as the virus is not airborne but spread by human contact."

A similar demand-exceeds-supply report comes from Chicago-based distributor True Value Company, which has almost sold out of dust masks/respirators. "However, we’ve been working closely with our suppliers and are expecting our first order of shipments to arrive in our warehouse as early as this week," the company said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "In the meantime, as the CDC recommends frequent hand-washing as a safety precaution, our distribution centers have been working around the clock to stock our stores with virus prevention products like hand sanitizers, cleaning wipes, bleach and various disinfecting products that can help prevent the spread of illness."

[Read True Value's full statement here.>

Theories vary on the causes of bulk purchases of respiratory masks. They include customer efforts to supply relatives in China and customer plans to resell at a profit. On the Hardlines Digest message board, it was suggested that an individual was buying masks to resell to New York City bus-trip passengers  – at a significant mark up.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported the outbreak of disease originating in Wuhan City, China, caused by the novel coronavirus in December 2019. While the initial cases of this virus have been associated with a specific seafood and animal market in Wuhan, additional cases have been reported mostly in China and several other countries, including the United States.

So far, 425 deaths have been attributed to the virus, and more than 20,400 people have been infected. Industry disruptions of the virus include factory closings and trade show postponements.

In addition to ramping up its production of protective gear, 3M says it is seeing increased demand in China and other regions responding to the outbreak.

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