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Opinion: NFL Fashion Masks But Still Not Enough Protective Masks

An N95 face mask outside NYU Langone Health hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.
Noam Galai
Getty Images
An N95 face mask outside NYU Langone Health hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.

As I read news reports this week that health care workers in several states said they don't have enough protective gear, including face masks, an email pinged in.

"PUT ON YOUR GAME FACE," it said. A sport merchandise site now sells face masks in the colors and logos of NFL teams.

Let me just note that some masks looked more appealing than others. The dancing Miami Dolphin could make you look like a bear with a fish in its mouth.

The website cautions that the team masks are, quote, "a fashion face covering not intended to be personal protective equipment." Proceeds from all sales will be donated to the CDC Foundation, supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But you might wonder: weeks and weeks into this pandemic, how can health care workers still lack enough protective masks, while masks for all 32 NFL teams are being sold as fashion items?

Justin Wolfers, an economist at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, told us the difference between the N95 masks used in hospitals and the football team masks is akin to the difference between real gems and costume jewelry.

The N95 respirator, when fit closely, is designed to block at least 95% of microscopic airborne particles. Of the football team masks, Professor Wolfers says, "My understanding is that they're somewhat effective at preventing the wearer's germs from being sneezed out all over the place. But they don't provide much protection to the wearer from germs that others have sprayed in their way."

In football terms, the NFL masks might be good defense, but offensive germs can still break through.

Justin Wolfers explains that the masks are produced by different supply lines. Medical manufacturers are stretched in this pandemic and find it hard to keep up with demand. But the apparel industry is shedding jobs and needs new work now. So while fashion masks roll out quickly, medical masks can be delayed.
"You could tell the story of American ingenuity, opening up new forms of production as needed," Professor Wolfers told us. "I was thinking more the opposite though. How difficult it can be to get an economy to shift overnight, especially given that we've needed these masks for quite a while."

As a Bears fan, I haven't decided whether to buy a logo mask. Even if they're limited as protective gear, they're surely a telling memento of these times.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.