Chiffon and cheesecloth, mesh and lace: These aren’t the materials that make up a face mask designed to protect its wearer from catching or transmitting COVID-19, according to World Health Organization guidelines. But the craftspeople who make and sell these kinds of masks on Etsy’s marketplace aren’t interested in blocking particles or flattening a curve. Some are looking to sell a statement about what they see as the oppressiveness of mask mandates, while others want to cater to niche medical needs. Either way, customers looking for a loophole to mask mandates are buying.
Mask-wearing has been scientifically proven to curb the transmission of COVID-19. While they’re not a perfect solution, case studies, laboratory experiments, and anecdotal evidence all support the CDC guidelines that recommend mask-wearing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne viruses. But these guidelines, and the mandates they’ve inspired across the U.S., have faced major cultural and political obstacles.
Despite the fact that it’s scientifically straightforward, the concept of mask-wearing has become almost mind-meltingly politically loaded since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Local police forces have largely declined to enforce mask-wearing, and retailers have had to enforce these rules themselves, with occasionally explosive results: screaming, irate anti-mask customers physically attack employees, jab their fingers at cameras, or are carried out of stores kicking and screaming by their own children.
COVID-19 deniers’ resistance to the reality of the global pandemic seems to only have grown as state legislators scrambled to mandate mask-wearing in the wake of post-reopening infection spikes. The latest form of protest? Some sort lower-face-covering material that does nothing to prevent the spread of coronavirus but might look, at a glance, like a mask; a “fuck you” in PPE form. A quick search for “freedom masks,” “breathable masks,” or “unmasks” on Etsy drums up a number of results aimed at customers who want to skirt safety measures.
“This mask combines Nah, NO! Technology with the governors ‘recommendations’ or as some people like to confuse it as ‘The Law’ that keeps the wearer extremely safe from not only angry hero employees, but it even regulates your oxygen levels!” read one description on a mesh mask, dubbed “breathable” by its seller. “For all the Karen’s, please note this mask, like most on the market, provide[s] 0 coverage from the 99.7% recovery rated COVID-19.”
Other masks available on the digital marketplace do the talking themselves, like the mesh offerings from one seller, emblazoned with slogans like “God Is In Control,” “Placebo,” “MAGA,” and “My Governor is an IDIOT!” (The owners of both of these Etsy shops did not respond to a request for comment from VICE.)
According to product feedback, customers are responding in kind, with reviews like: “You are a true Patriot! Love, Love, Love this Freedom mask. Do you have more? Thank you so much! FREEDOM!!!” or “I’ve bought 2 of your masks and I wear them when I’m forced to by our tyrannical governor. Keep being you, I appreciate it!”
VICE spoke with an Etsy seller named Chelsea, who picked up crocheting around a year ago, and who said she decided to crochet face masks at her 10-year-old daughter’s suggestion. “I had never planned on actually selling any,” she said.
But when a Facebook post she made about her crocheted mask blew up, Chelsea decided she had a marketable idea on her hands. “After my post, there were over 1000 comments going, both for and against my mask… I had a woman say she was going to use me as an example of why the kids should not go back to school, because she is a teacher. I said I'll use her as an example of why I homeschool.”
The masks Chelsea sells come in a variety of patterns, like the “stupid face mask that wont keep you safe” (sic) depicting the American flag, or another, crocheted in blue and black, meant to signal support for police officers. “Most people are super supportive” of the endeavor, she said. “Some have even said they wear it over their regular mask and it makes people do a double-take.”
According to Chelsea, she’s sold more than 120 of these masks on Etsy, and netted over $1000 while doing so.
Kyoko, a seller who originally joined Etsy in search of a wider audience for her line of baby clothes, told VICE she created her mesh masks with a very specific purpose in mind. She made the first pair as part of a custom order for a hearing-impaired couple who reached out and told her they needed a product that would allow them to lip-read without restricting their breathing. After she created a chiffon face mask and sent it to the couple, their feedback encouraged her to list the mask on her shop.
“They immediately messaged me back and were like, ‘This is amazing, you don't even understand how much this was helpful for us,’” she said. “So I was like, oh, maybe there are people much more in need of things like this.” She’s since received feedback from other customers in the murky sliver of the general population who cannot wear face masks for medical reasons, like a woman whose brain surgery left her with a panic disorder triggered by breathing restrictions. But Kyoko also said the popularity of the product has exceeded her expectations to an… unsettling degree.
“I started posting it on Etsy, and it started blowing up. So then I was like, ‘Whoa, are these all deaf people and I just didn't know, or people with breathing problems? What is this?’” she said. “I have [since] gotten people's messages saying, ‘I hate masks but I love yours!’ to which I'm like, yeah, OK, but if you can wear a normal mask, I kinda want you to. I think the tough part is that I can't choose the customer.”
Another element out of her control is the reaction from people who view her product as a public health hazard.
“I got a message from one person saying: 'Murderer!'” Kyoko said. “It really hurts me.” She’s currently working on a more protective version of her mask, but in the meantime she’s making efforts to remain as… transparent as possible. “I put in my listing to say the protection is very minimal, it's specifically designed for people who have disabilities or health conditions that just cannot wear a regular mask. And with them knowing that and choosing that, I don't want to say I don't have control over it, but I don't.”
Etsy told VICE that makers selling sheer face masks are not in violation of its prohibited items policy.) despite the fact that many of them seem to be encouraging customers to exploit technicalities in mask mandates, to potentially dangerous ends.
“Face masks sold on Etsy are not medical grade, and listings are not allowed to include medical or health claims,” a representative from Etsy told VICE via email. “While we are not responsible for determining the efficacy of masks listed on our marketplace, we are committed to keeping our community safe and work to actively review and remove items that violate our policies.”
This inaction is an interesting contrast to the company’s actions earlier this year, when it removed COVID-19-themed merchandise from its site in March. According to a BuzzFeed News report, it did so in order to prevent the spread of misinformation and to stop sellers attempting to “exploit” the pandemic.
Unless the company decides to shift its stance, the people selling freedom masks don’t plan on stopping any time soon, complaints from fellow Etsy users be damned.
“If someone tells me I shouldn't be allowed to sell [my masks], I remind them I have the freedom to do so,” Chelsea, the crocheter, said. “Just as they have the freedom not to.”
Follow Katie Way on Twitter.