For some New York City businesses, making masks is a new lifeline

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Father-daughter team Steve and Leah Kim model the masks their New York City alterations business, Master Tailor, started making when the coronavirus hit.

When New York City largely shut down last month due to the spread of Covid-19, it was a devastating blow for some businesses.

That included the Master Tailor, an alteration shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that had only been open for about a year.

In late March, customer traffic decreased. Eventually, the father-daughter team who own the shop, Steve and Leah Kim, saw no business at all, as restrictions to keep a six-foot distance from other people made it impossible to do alterations.

“Since we were not considered an essential business, we were going to close the shop,” Leah said.

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But then the Kims pivoted to make masks for their family, due to the late shipment of an online order. Simultaneously, a customer requested they make masks for her family and neighbors.

And a new source of business income was created.

The approach to controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus has evolved in recent months, and that has led to a growing demand for masks.

While the Centers for Disease Control said in February  it did not recommend the use of face masks, the government agency ended up reversing itself by early April.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently ordered all people to wear face masks in public.

In New York City, which has seen a record high number of coronavirus cases, Mayor Bill De Blasio has also strongly encouraged people to wear masks when they go out and imposed fines on those who don’t maintain social distancing.

As guidance to wear mask gets stronger, and some retailers refuse entrance to customers not wearing them, many New Yorkers have scrambled to find suitable masks. Local convenience stores sell disposable masks. Meanwhile, others have put together makeshift face coverings of their own.

Now, some New York-based businesses are stepping in to help.

Make your own masks

Kristine Frailing, founder of the New York Sewing Center in midtown Manhattan, also saw her business change overnight as Covid-19 spread in the city.

The New York Sewing Center provides sewing classes and private lessons, mostly all of which were conducted in person until March 18, the last day the business was officially open to customers.

“We went from being very successful, having nine people working at the Sewing Center, to immediately not having any capabilities of teaching,” Frailing said.

Frailing had to reduce her staff, which mostly consisted of teachers who work on a contract basis.

Kristine Frailing, right, founder of The New York Sewing Center, and her parents, left, model the masks her business makes.

It also prompted her to quickly pivot to online classes, through platforms like Facetime and Zoom.

One of those early classes was a YouTube video class on making masks, which Frailing was inspired to put together after hearing concerns from her family members who work in grocery stores.

To Frailing’s surprise, the video drew 166,000 views in the first few days.

After that, nurses, doctors and hospitals got in touch to be added to her email list. Frailing also organized a system to donate masks that were made through the classes to local hospitals that needed them.

It’s not just my business. Everybody is affected by this.

Kristine Frailing

founder of the New York Sewing Center

“We’re having hospitals reach out and say, ‘Take me off your list, we have fulfilled our need,’ which is actually amazing,” Frailing said. “That’s the whole goal of why we did the free class to begin with.”

The Sewing Center is also taking orders for ready-made fabric masks for $15 each, which has helped to supplement income for the business.

Still, it has been tough to transition online so fast while still facing high overhead costs like rent, Frailing admits. That has led her to explore possible sources for government help.

“It’s not just my business,” Frailing said. “Everybody is affected by this.”

Buy one, give one

Brooklyn-based shoe start-up company Atoms was having a record year before the coronavirus hit.

That included the company’s first pop-up shop in the city that wrapped up in January. The brand had moved to New York about a year ago from San Francisco.

Its founders, Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, met in Pakistan and came to the U.S. in 2015 when they received funding by Y Combinator, a firm that provides money to early stage startups.

Today, Atoms is also a portfolio company of Initialized Capital, an early stage venture capital firm.

Atoms co-founders Sidra Qasam, left, and Waqas Ali model the new face masks the company has started making in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Atoms

Atoms’ goal is to sell sneakers that are both comfortable and stylish. Unlike other retail businesses, the company has seen its sales increase during this time.

Qasim attributes the company’s sales now to targeted marketing, as well as the fact they include products like hand sanitizer with customers’ orders.

Still, the company wanted to do more to help, which led them to the idea of making masks. They started working on the idea in early April. This week, they are receiving and sending out their first batch of masks.

For every $10 mask someone buys, the company plans to donate another mask. The initial partner for those donations is the New York Housing Authority, which provides public housing in New York City.

The company initially offered to donate 5,000 masks. But the amount of orders the company has received will push that to closer to 60,000. Many of the orders have come from New York and California, states that have been hit the hardest by Covid-19.

Ideally, Atoms’ masks will give everyday people facial protection, while helping to conserve N95 mask supplies for medical professionals.

“It could literally save lives and decrease the spread,” Ali said.

Tailor-made masks

A typical day at the Master Tailor shop on the Upper West Side has changed since the family business turned to making masks.

The shop stays open six days a week. It sells masks from the time it opens at 10 a.m. until they sell out, which is almost every day, Leah Kim said.

A close up of the Master Tailor mask prototype.

On average, the business sells about 50 masks per day, which it produces through an assembly-line type process. The masks cost $20 each and are limited to two per customer.

The fabric masks are hand-washable and come in multiple sizes to fit a variety of face sizes. And while filters are not included, the masks do have pockets for them.

The production requires the team to work 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, Leah said. While they took pre-orders at first, they have since stopped because the demand grew too large.

This is also something we are doing for the community, not just profit.

Leah said it remains to be seen how well the masks helps to sustain the business. But the father-daughter team is grateful they can stay open and help fellow New Yorkers, she said.

“This is also something we are doing for the community, not just profit,” Leah said.

Have a coronavirus-related business story you would like to share? Contact the author at lorie.konish@nbcuni.com.

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