We trace the mask’s rise to this season’s most contentious health and fashion item, and meet Berliners taking matters into their own hands.
When the coronavirus arrived in Berlin, people wearing masks in the street were an odd sight. It all seemed a bit over the top. Experts told us we didn’t need masks, and they were nowhere to be found, anyway. These days, anyone over the age of six and using public transportation or even just getting some groceries from the supermarket is technically required (although no one is really checking) to wear one. Masks have become part of our daily lives – be they colourful handcrafted pieces of fabric (everyone is either making their own or found a friend who does), or the surgical paperlike types – now available again in pharmacies or online and handed out at various districts’ townhalls. In the case of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, they even come as DIY sewing kits in front of local shops and offices. As Europe is planning post-confinement options, face masks are supposed to be our ticket out of lockdown and ultimately save the economy from collapsing. How did we get here in the space of just a few weeks?
On March 1, a 21-year-old man was the first confirmed Corona patient admitted to Charité hospital. By the end of the following week there were 40 confirmed cases, and pharmacies and drugstores put up notes on their doors and windows, informing Berliners that they had no Mundschutz left to sell. Masks, next to flour, pasta and toilet paper, had become the hottest commodity in town – and nowhere to be found. But it wasn’t supposed to matter so much: Eminent virologists from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) were quick to explain that face masks didn’t make sense for the general public.
Prices for medical masks had gone up from about 6 cents apiece to up to €6. Meanwhile they became a black market item, sold across the city for up to €20.
They were only needed for medical professionals, whose supplies were running alarmingly low. By mid-March, hospitals warned of shortages and by March 25, the local association of resident doctors said 31 practices had to close due to a lack of protective wear. The federal government had already started making centralised orders but Health Secretary Jens Spahn conceded that medical masks were hard to get hold of, not all orders actually arrived and prices had gone up from about 6 cents apiece to up to €6. Meanwhile they became a black market item, sold across the city for up to €25.
To mask or not to mask – the experts’ 180
Medical masks typically are one of two types:tThe basic surgical mask, or the more high-tech Filtering Face Piece (FFP) conforming to the European EN 149 norm. FFP2 masks can filter out at least 94 percent of particles larger than 0,6µm (i.e. 600nm) from the air, the FFP3 standard means at least 99 percent can be filtered. These masks are the only ones guaranteed to offer good protection from the coronavirus (provided they’re replaced every two hours) and the government ordered millions of FFP2 shields for professionals dealing with Covid-19 patients in hospitals. Surgical masks are supposed to help reduce the spread of viral droplets that might be released while speaking, coughing or even just breathing – they’re not virus-proof, but are supposed to protect surroundings from an infected wearer. For weeks, both the government and the RKI repeated that they were unnecessary for the masses – even the WHO wasn’t recommending them.
But on March 31, when the city of Jena made it compulsory for all to wear a face mask, it became clearer that political pragmatism had prevailed over health considerations – in the words of Berlin’s Commerce Senator Ramona Pop: “To be honest, as long as there aren’t enough protective masks for medical professionals, (…) it will be difficult to make them a requirement for the general public.” But expert opinions started to shift. The RKI changed its tune on April 1, saying masks would make sense to slow down the spread of Covid-19 if worn by “enough” people, especially in enclosed spaces such as offices, shops and public transport. Berlin placed its orders and masks were supposed to come in – but the global mask market proved to be wildly competitive.
The US-Berlin Mask-gate
On April 3, news broke that 200,000 masks ordered from China destined to go to the Berlin police, had disappeared from Bangkok airport and redirected to the USA. Mayor Müller was furious and took to Twitter in Trump-style to denounce the US president’s actions as “inhumane and unacceptable”. Interior Senator and party comrade Andreas Geisel backed Müller up, speaking of “modern piracy” and “Wild West methods” and calling on the federal government to intervene and restore order in transatlantic relations.
France and Canada made similar allegations against the supposedly mask-stealing US, and the story made international headlines
US ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, accused Müller’s government of anti-Americanism, and Fox News reported the Berlin Senat was spreading fake news. Müller reconsidered his words and apologised for the strong vocabulary – while holding on to his suspicion of mask theft. Angela Merkel demanded the case be cleared up and Foreign Ministry supposedly started investigations in Bangkok and Washington – which is the last anyone heard of mask-gate. Since then, millions of masks have successfully been delivered to Berlin. On April 5, the German air force helped cart two million from Leipzig airport to Berlin, Lufthansa was asked to send jumbo jets to Shanghai to pick up more and on April 19, 4.5 million arrived in the German capital.
Mask shortage: Theatres to the rescue!
But some Berliners didn’t wait for Chinese supplies to be or not to be delivered. By the end of March, local suppliers had already come to the rescue, and among the first were costume workshops at major theatres. The Senat pays €2 per mask, and soon fashion schools, as well as Tegel and Moabit prisons, joined their effort to bulk up the available protection for care professionals. Along with Gorki and Theater an der Parkaue, Deutsches Theater was among the pioneers.
As all stages had to shut down by the beginning of March, and dressers were left jobless (contact bans made fittings impossible), intendant Ulrich Khuon and head of costume department Sabine Reinfeldt had the idea to start a mask production.
“When [Ulrich Khuon] told me about it, I already had the idea in mind,” Reinfeldt explains. “First I thought it would be complicated since we only have five sewing machines in the theatre’s workshop. But the dressers who have a sewing machine at home said they would be able to help out as well.”
Five dressers are currently sewing from home and six in the theatre, which has been turned into a vast mask workshop. Sewing machines have been scattered around the place in different rooms, offering each worker a 30sqm space. Once the fabric has
been pre-washed, ironed, steamed and cut in the workshop, each dresser can come by to pick up the new material and drop the masks they finished. They each produce around 20 masks per week. They’ve been supplying a school and a Kita in Köpenick and a public health office where the sister of one of the theatre’s light engineers works, only asking for €1 per mask to cover the material costs.
Everyone is making masks – theatres, operas and fashion shops. The cotton fabric and elastic bands are harder to find and more expensive.
“Our own supplies were gone after a week,” Reinfeldt says. “The problem is that now everyone is making masks – theatres, operas and fashion shops. The cotton fabric and elastic bands are harder to find and more expensive.” As a matter of fact, everyone is making masks these days. Welcome to the DIY era of the Alltagsmaske!
The birth of the Alltagsmaske
The breakthrough of the Alltagsmaske (everyday or DIY or homemade mask) came on April 15 when Angela Merkel urged the nation to put on “Alltagsmasken“ to protect others and themselves. A week later, Berlin announced it would make them compulsory on public transport from April 27, and was strongly recommending wearing them in supermarkets and around anyone in a high-risk group. An Alltagsmaske can be anything which covers the nose and mouth, and Berliners are showing no shortage of creativity: Everyone is making their own, from students and millionaires, tailors to costume makers and hobby designers to shops. The Alltagsmaske is supposed to keep spit and snot away from the wearer’s surroundings and provide at least some form of protection, but they are also becoming statements and, ultimately, fashion.
21-year-old Kreuzberger Louise was ahead of the viral curve when she started sewing masks five weeks ago. A French native with a pulmonologist mother working in a hospital in the Corona-stricken Alsace region, she was quick to embrace the idea: “My mother insists it’s important to wear a mask when going out – and it makes sense, because it keeps you from touching your face and, you know, spitting when you talk or cough.”
With a film direction internship on hold, plenty of spare time, a sewing machine purchased to hem curtains and the urge to do something… Louise soon reinvented herself as a mask-maker. After watching a couple of YouTube tutorials, she went with a design that has a little pocket to put a kitchen towel sheet or a coffee filter for extra efficiency. The material comes from her recently decluttered wardrobe and mostly consists of striped cotton t-shirts. Her first specimens were for her roommates and boyfriend, but so far she’s made 20 and left them in her building’s hallway for neighbours to take.
“It takes me about an hour to make one. It keeps me busy and feeling useful,” she says. Louise herself has been wearing her mask religiously whenever leaving
the house (for shopping or seeing her boyfriend) and approves of the city’s new rules and recommendations.
Designers sewing their way through the crisis
DIY is huge when it comes to masks, but not every homemade Alltagsmaske looks the part. In her Frankfurter Allee store SYLD (Support Your Local Designer), 30-year-old Inga Lieckfeldt has been selling handcrafted masks for years. Hannisch, one of the 25-30 young designers represented in her store, has been making blue sequined, black holographic as well as patterned and plain options (€19.90-29.90) for two years. Usually, those masks are a mix of dust protection and festival fashion, ideal for Burning Man desert situations. Lieckfeldt typically sells around 100 per festival season, but is now seeing a hugely increased demand with over 1000 orders in the past month alone.
These masks are a nice fashion accessory to have at the moment. I know many fashion lovers who already style their outfit around their mask.
The fashion pieces don’t conform to any medical standards but easily pass as Alltagsmasken and, as Lieckfeldt explains: “These masks are a nice fashion accessory to have at the moment. I know many fashion lovers who already style their outfit around their mask.” For her, it makes perfect sense to wear fabric masks in order to “leave the medical masks to those who urgently need them.” Is it worth investing in a fashionable designer mask? For Lieckfeldt, masks will “remain an important symbol for this year and an IT piece even after the crisis.”
Others, like Martina Zepplin of Rau, a small fashion design shop on Mitte’s Gormannstraße, have taken to mask production to keep jobs. Zepplin started designing her own masks when her mother had to go to hospital. She posted a picture on Instagram and when Corona rolled around all her friends wanted one, giving her the idea to also sell them out of her shop. While her boutique was closed, the masks ensured Rau’s seamstress could go on sewing and be paid. And because she felt the masks could do even more good, Zepplin is donating €2 out of the €19 per “Berliner Schnauze” mask to Straßenkinder e.V., an NGO supporting homeless and poor kids in the city.
Berlin masks for Lesbos
Then there are those who have no work for the time being, but are determined to make the best out of the pandemic. Film costumer Theresa Anna Luther, 41, was working on Der Palast, a five-part homage to the Friedrichstadtpalast, when Corona put the production on hold. Today she and fellow costumer Dodo Kulhawy coordinate “Masks for Berlin – Support for Lesbos”, an initiative that sews and sends masks to people who make donations to a selection of small organisations helping refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Together with Kerstin Lehmann, a tailor and accessory person who got into mask-making through the maskenfueralle.com portal and a bunch of colleagues and friends, she gathered a team of 29 tailors and costumers, plus around 15 assistant directors taking care of bike deliveries. About a week ago, the group were joined by more colleagues from Munich.
“Most of us worked together on Babylon Berlin,” Luther says. “When Kerstin and I first had the idea to make masks, I called Volker Bruch (who plays inspector Gereon Rath) and he recommended some of the refugee organisations.” Now, anyone who donates a minimum of €7.50 to #leavenoonebehind, No Name Kitchen, Lesvos Solidarity or any other of the current six partners, can send proof of their donation to Masks for Berlin and choose a mask – the adults or children classic or the “ninja” model. So far, the indefatigable team have sewn 1619 masks for an average donation of €11.13 and raised a total of €25,000 to help with the disastrous situation of overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek island.
The fabric comes from donations made mainly by fabric shops and the website was made for free by a Prenzlauer Berg IT startup, but the team had to invest in rubber bands. “We’ve spent about €800 for materials which our families have helped cover,” Luther says. It’s her way to do something meaningful while she is waiting to be back on her job. “I’m on Kurzarbeitergeld and lucky enough to get the €1033 weekly industry rate until the end of August.”
For now, she is at least as busy as she would be working in the film business. “My colleague Dodo Kulhawy and I have been working 50 to 60 hours a week,” she says. “And who knows? We might be doing this for a while”. There’s no end of the mask in sight – as the Berlin Senat seems to be willing to extend the requirement to ever more areas of everyday life and Berliners growing fonder of pandemic wear – with more or less fashionable outcomes.