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Demand Surges For See-Through Face Masks As Pandemic Swells

Michael Conley, who is deaf, models a mask that has a transparent panel in San Diego on June 3. Face coverings can make communication harder for people who rely on reading lips, and that has spurred a slew of startups and volunteers to make masks with plastic windows.
Michael Conley, who is deaf, models a mask that has a transparent panel in San Diego on June 3. Face coverings can make communication harder for people who rely on reading lips, and that has spurred a slew of startups and volunteers to make masks with plastic windows.

Blake Blackmon and his fiancée, Jessica Cournoyer, recently welcomed their second child, a cherubic-cheeked good sleeper name Beau. He entered the world last month after a quick labor, arriving almost before nurses were ready.

"As soon as the first push happened, she said, "No, no, no, stop, stop, stop! Baby's already crowning," Blackmon recalls a nurse telling Cournoyer. A team of nurses rushed in.

Cournoyer, who was born deaf, understood those instructions only because she could read her nurse's lips through a transparent face mask. The mask had been custom-made for her by a volunteer who lives nearby in Salisbury, N.C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month declared face coverings a "critical tool" in stopping the surge in COVID-19 cases amid growing scientific evidence that they can significantly reduce viral spread, "particularly when used universally within communities."

Karen Franks, the volunteer who made the mask used by Jessica Cournoyer and Blake Blackmon when their baby was born, is a North Carolina elementary school music teacher who recently turned to sewing masks — mostly clear ones — to help her community.
/ Karen Frankjs
Karen Franks, the volunteer who made the mask used by Jessica Cournoyer and Blake Blackmon when their baby was born, is a North Carolina elementary school music teacher who recently turned to sewing masks — mostly clear ones — to help her community.

But most masks come with significant social downsides: They hide smiles and obscure expressions and can telegraph suspicion or danger. And they can be a serious impediment for the 10 million Americans like Cournoyer who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Cournoyer abandoned sign language in middle school after a cochlear implant restored most of her hearing. But she still relies on a clear line of sight to see what people are saying.

"I cannot understand people whenever they turn or keep moving around," she says.

It's not just those with hearing loss who are clamoring for cloth face masks that have a see-through panel. They are a hot item among teachers, for example, and others who work with children or the elderly. Vendors on the craft site Etsy have taken up the call with masks of varying quality and design.

Transparent face shields might seem an obvious alternative, but they are open at the bottom and not recommended by the CDC "for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings," according to the agency's website. And after a coronavirus outbreak in a Swiss restaurant recently — one in which employees wearing face shields became infected with the virus, while those in cloth masks didn't — health officials in Switzerland and some European countries also have been panning reliance on face shields.

At least one company — ClearMask, based in Baltimore — has gone so far as to seek and earn FDA "clearance" that its mask with a transparent panel is "substantially equivalent" to a medical-grade surgical mask for hospitals and other front-line uses.

ClearMask's founder and CEO Aaron Hsu says it took three years of research and development to develop a clear material that won't fog up.

"For a lot of children communication is nonverbal," says Hsu. "Being able to see who we're talking to is fundamental to how we communicate and connect."

The company was started in 2017, he says, by four Johns Hopkins University students who identified the need for a niche medical product for deaf people. But now its appeal has gone global.

Bulk orders of ClearMask's disposable face coverings — meant for just one-time use — are currently going to governments, hospitals and commercial clients, Hsu says, though individuals such as interpreters, factory workers and people working in customer service are ordering them, too, at $67 for the minimum purchase order of 24.

"Demand has skyrocketed," he says. "I mean, we're working around the clock."

For most purposes, even a handmade version of such a mask is likely to help in everyday situations, says David Aronoff, director of infectious disease at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation.

"We know that the virus cannot penetrate plastic or solid materials, so see-through masks provide potentially a great option for balancing infection prevention with the desire to be able to see somebody's mouth move," Aronoff says.

"The main thing that we really need to get people to understand is that wearing a face covering is really important. And if it helps them to wear one that has a cut-out in the middle with a piece of plastic to make it easier to see — that's great."

Karen Franks, the volunteer who made the mask used by Jessica Cournoyer and Blake Blackmon when their baby was born, is an elementary school music teacher who recently turned to sewing masks eight hours a day — mostly clear ones — just to help out her community.

Franks says she never leaves her house unmasked and hopes others in her community will follow suit.

Making masks "is kind of selfish of me," she says, "because if I can get people wearing masks so I can feel safer and be safer, than maybe me making them for people will do it."

Franks devised the mask she produces by cutting a hole out of a regular cloth mask and inserting clear, plastic Mylar her husband uses at his comic book shop to bag and preserve rare comics. The Mylar, she says, is durable and repels moisture.

A few of those masks found their way to Blackmon — who had once been Franks' student, the two subsequently realized.

"Oh, he was a very good student — he has dark eyebrows and a really sweet smile," Franks says. Speaking of smiling, she says, she misses smiling at her students and is considering using a transparent mask herself — if her school's classes resume in person.

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