U.S. Masks Corporations Battle to Compete with China

In Congress, a bill with bipartisan support would allocate $500 million in annual spending over the next three years to support domestic manufacturers of vital medical equipment.

While industry executives commend these moves, they say that time is running out. The American Mask Manufacturer’s Association, a recently created trade group, said its 27 members had already laid off 50 percent of their work force. Without concerted action from Washington, most of those companies will go belly up within the next two months.

An immediate boost, they say, would be to rescind the C.D.C. guidelines, born during the pandemic, that force health workers to repeatedly reuse N95 masks, even though they are designed to be thrown away after contact with each patient. Many hospitals are still following the guidelines, even though 260 million masks are gathering dust in warehouses across the country.

“We’re not looking for infinite support from the government,” said Lloyd Armbrust, the association’s president and the founder and chief executive of Armbrust American, a mask-making company in Texas. “We need the government’s support right now because unfair pressure from China is going to kill this new industry before the legislators even get a chance to fix the problem.”

The association is planning to file an unfair trade complaint with the World Trade Organization, claiming that much of the protective gear imported from China is selling for less than the cost of production. The price for some Chinese-made surgical masks has recently dropped to as low as 1 cent, compared with about 10 to 15 cents for American masks that use domestically produced raw material.

“This is full-on economic warfare,” said Luis Arguello Jr., vice president of DemeTech, a medical-suture company in Florida that earlier this month laid off 1,500 workers who made surgical masks. He said that in the coming weeks, 500 other workers who make N95 masks would also likely be let go.

“China is on the mission to make sure no one in the industry survives, and so far they’re winning,” Mr. Arguello said.

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