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Meeting the demand for masks

Ann Gray joins a growing staff at Hippo Hug making masks for the City of Calgary and other clients. Photo: supplied by Hippo Hug

Business has been good for Calgary's Leslie Brooks. The entrepreneur started Hippo Hug (weighted blankets) in her home in 2011, and a Maclean's magazine feature in 2016 only increased product demand.

But with the spread of COVID-19 in hard-hit Calgary, Brooks has shifted her focus to a new product, something neither she or her staff have ever made – cotton face masks.

“At the end of March, a couple of friends asked ‘hey, do you think you can make cloth masks?’ ” said Brooks. “There seemed to be mixed messages at the time on cloth masks, but I thought, if we make enough masks to keep everyone’s jobs and keep us busy, that would be great. I thought we would make a couple of hundred masks per week.”

Instead, the mask-making business has exploded, with health organizations and authorities around the world – including Health Canada –declaring that masks can help stop the spread of Coronavirus. Brooks has had to increase staff from four to 12 to meet the demand and also has seven or eight volunteers helping out.

(Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, demonstrates how to use a non-medical mask.)

Hippo Hug has received more than 30,000 mask orders to date, with a bulk of that coming from The City of Calgary. It wants to outfit all employees with masks, especially those working in public-facing jobs.

Alberta Garment has supplied coveralls to City employees since 2016, and supplies oil and gas companies with flame-resistant clothing and other protective work wear.

While face masks are new to the company’s production line, Alberta Garment owner Adrian Bussoli said his shop was well positioned to meet a demand from The City, Province and many businesses.

“If you haven’t done something before, you are having to go through a learning curve with respect to product development. But we have the digitizing tools, the software tools, and the know-how that is necessary,” said Bussoli. “We have people in our business that have 40 years of experience and have done a variety of products. We’re positioned as a supplier and we’re built for that diversification.”

Both Brooks and Bussoli aren’t sure where this new line of business is going but they both agree on one thing – that face masks will have to be produced not only for the coming days or weeks, but months. The two business owners are already fielding calls from companies who have or will soon be re-opening and want to outfit their staff with face masks.

Both entrepreneurs are also thrilled to be able to play their parts in helping keep Albertans safe during the pandemic.

“We all know people, close friends and relatives, who are in that position of being a doctor or a nurse, or a long-term care facility worker,” said Bussoli. “Whatever we can do to help people, we see that as a positive. We’re all contributing to making it better for everyone. Our staff are highly motivated to do that.”