By Markian Hawryluk, Kaiser Health News
LONE TREE — Darcy Velasquez, 42, and her mother, Roberta Truax, were walking recently in the Park Meadows mall about 15 miles south of downtown Denver, looking for Christmas gifts for Velasquez’s two children, when they spotted a store with a display of rhinestone-studded masks.
It’s an immutable truth of fashion: Sparkles can go a long way with a 9-year-old.
The store is called COVID-19 Essentials. And it may well be the country’s first retail chain dedicated solely to an infectious disease.
With many U.S. stores closing during the coronavirus pandemic, especially inside malls, the owners of this chain have seized on the empty space, as well as the world’s growing acceptance that wearing masks is a reality that may last well into 2021, if not longer. Masks have evolved from a utilitarian, anything-you-can-find-that-works product into another way to express one’s personality, political leanings or sports fandom.
And the owners of COVID-19 Essentials are betting that Americans are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Prices range from $19.99 for a simple children’s mask to $130 for the top-of-the-line face covering, with an N95 filter and a battery-powered fan.
Almost all shops and many pop-up kiosks in the Park Meadows mall now sell masks. But COVID-19 Essentials also carries other accessories for the pandemic, in a space that has a more established feel than a holiday pop-up store; permanent signage above its glass doors includes a stylized image of a coronavirus particle. Nestled beside the UNTUCKit shirt store and across from a Tesla showroom, it has neither the brand recognition nor the track record of a J.C. Penney. But longevity doesn’t seem to have helped that clothing chain or many others escape industry upheaval during the pandemic. According to analysts at S&P Global Market Intelligence, retail bankruptcies from January to mid-August reached a 10-year-high.
Not that the COVID-19 Essentials owners want their products to be in demand forever.
“I can’t wait to go out of business eventually,” said Nadav Benimetzky, a Miami retailer who founded COVID-19 Essentials, which now has eight locations around the country.
That seemed to be the attitude of most of the customers who walked into the store on a recent Friday afternoon. Most understood the need for masks — face coverings are required to even enter the mall — and thus they recognized the business case for a COVID-19 store. Still, they hoped masks would soon go the way of bell-bottoms or leg warmers. For the time being, they’re making the best of the situation.
Nathan Chen, who owns the Lone Tree store with Benimetzky, previously ran a different store at the Denver airport, but as air travel declined, a COVID-focused business seemed a much better venture. The pandemic giveth and the pandemic taketh away.
Benimetzky opened the first COVID-19 Essentials store in the Aventura Mall in suburban Miami after seeing the demand for N95 masks early in the pandemic. “They’re ugly and uncomfortable, and everybody hates them,” he said. “I piggybacked off of that. If you’re going to wear a mask, you might as well make it fashionable and pretty.”
That could mean a sequin or satin mask for more formal occasions, or the toothy grin of a skull mask for casual affairs. Some masks have zippers to make eating easier, or a hole for a straw, with a Velcro closure for when the cup is sucked dry.
The chain has locations in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Las Vegas, and is looking to open stores in California, where wildfires have only added to the demand for masks.
Initially, the owners really weren’t sure the idea would fly. They opened the first store just as malls were reopening following the lockdowns.
“We really didn’t grasp how big it would get,” Benimetzky said. “We didn’t go into it with the idea of opening many stores. But we got busy from the second we opened.”
Nancy Caeti, 76, stopped in the Lone Tree store to buy masks for her grandchildren. She bought one with a clear panel for her granddaughter, whose sign language instructor needs to see her lips moving. She bought her daughter, a music teacher and Denver Broncos fan, a mask with the football team’s logo.
“I lived through the polio epidemic,” Caeti said, as her latex-gloved hand inserted her credit card into the card reader. “It reminds me of that, but that I don’t think was as bad.” She recalled how her mother had lined her and her siblings up to get the polio vaccine, and said she’d be first in line for a COVID shot.
That perhaps is the one essential the store does not carry. It hawks keylike devices for opening doors and pressing elevator buttons without touching them. Some have a built-in bottle opener. There are ultraviolet-light devices for disinfecting phones and upscale hand sanitizer that employees spray on customers as if it were a department store perfume sample.
But the masks are the biggest draw. The store can personalize them with rhinestone letters or the kind of iron-on patches that teens once wore on their jeans.
Upon entry, customers can check their temperature with a digital forehead scanner with audible directions: “Step closer. Step closer. Temperature normal. Temperature normal.”
The store also has added a sink near the entrance so customers can wash their hands before handling the merchandise.
Some mallgoers walk by the store in bewilderment, stopping to take photos to post to social media with a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding message. One older white couple in matching masks noticed a mask emblazoned with the slogan “Black Lives Matter” in the storefront display, and walked away in disgust.
The store takes no political sides; there are three designs of President Donald Trump campaign masks, two for Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. One woman, who declined to give her name, came in wearing a mask below her nose and wondered whether a Trump mask would fit her smallish face. The Trump masks are among the more popular sellers, Chen said, so he keeps them in a bigger cabinet to accommodate the extra stock. It’s not clear if that will forecast the election results, as some have posited with Halloween mask sales.
Daniel Gurule, 31, stopped by the mall on his lunch hour to pick up an Apple Watch but ventured into the store for a new mask. He said that he normally wore a vented mask but that not all places allowed those. (They protect users but not the people around them.) He bought a $24.99 mask with the logo of the Denver Nuggets basketball team.
“It takes away a little bit of our personalities when everybody is walking around in disposable masks,” Chen said. “It kind of looks like a hospital, like everybody is sick.”
Most of the masks are sewn specifically for the chain, including many by hand. One of their suppliers is a family of Vietnamese immigrants who sew masks at their Los Angeles home, Benimetzky said. Chen said that it was hard to keep masks in stock, and that every day it seemed some other design became their best seller.
Dorothy Lovett, 80, paused outside the store, leaning on a cane with an animal print design.
“I had to back up and say, ‘What the heck is this?’” she said. “I’ve never seen a mask store before.”
She perused the display case, noting she needed to find a better option than the cloth version she was wearing.
“I can’t breathe in this one,” said Lovett, who is white, before deciding on her favorite. “I like the Black Lives Matter mask.”