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Stores that stopped stocking masks reconsider putting them back on shelves as Delta surges

For now, though, buying a mask locally could be a challenge

Face masks for sale in a store on Market Street in April 2020.
Face masks for sale in a store on Market Street in April 2020.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

With concerns about the Delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise, the demand for face masks also is increasing, even as many stores have stopped stocking the protective coverings. Now, with mask advisories and mandates making an unwanted comeback, some local retailers are planning to refill their shelves, and manufacturers are ramping up production after months of relative dormancy.

For now, though, buying a mask locally could be a challenge. Earlier this week, none could be found during visits to Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and HomeGoods stores ― all owned by Framingham-based TJX Cos. Clerks at all three locations said they were no longer selling them.

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Covet, a consignment shop in Beacon Hill, stopped carrying face coverings several weeks after Governor Charlie Baker lifted the state’s remaining restrictions at the end of May. They just weren’t selling anymore, said manager Elizabeth Leary. The store sold off the remainder of its supply and canceled orders for more, she said. Lately, Leary has noticed “a lot” more customers wearing them indoors again, and said the store will start selling masks again if mandates are reinstated.

At the On Centre gift shop in Jamaica Plain, demand for masks waned in late spring as more people were vaccinated and felt safer. Manager Courtney Marchuk said the store postponed reorders because it had a “decent stock” left, and its staff was hopeful face masks wouldn’t be necessary for much longer.

But with breakthrough COVID-19 infections becoming more commonplace, Marchuk is reconsidering that position.

“I think that we’re actually going to get more face masks in, because there’s been an increased demand,” she said. “It’s a small one, but I think it’s only going to grow.”

Face masks are sold at On Centre, a community gift store.
Face masks are sold at On Centre, a community gift store.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

One of On Centre’s suppliers is sock company Odd Sox, which started producing face masks last summer. Owner Ahmad Akar said it has been sitting on its oversupply of masks for five months, slowly selling them off.

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But within the last several weeks, Akar has received more inquiries from his larger retail partners. Stores are debating purchasing more masks, he said, but they also fear getting stuck with extra inventory.

“Everyone’s kind of in this Catch-22 trying to figure out what to do,” Akar said. “We’re all just trying to figure it out together.”

Courtney Marchuk, the manager of On Centre.
Courtney Marchuk, the manager of On Centre.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

For South End boutique Ash and Rose, predicting customer demand has been difficult because everything is dependent on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

After a flood wiped out the store’s inventory last March and forced it to temporarily conduct sales online only, Ash and Rose’s homemade masks — the only items that were spared by the flood — were selling so quickly they became a lifeline for the business.

But by the summer, cofounder Mary Savoca said, the shop was discounting its masks and giving them away as free gifts with purchases.

Savoca expects to stock up on more masks for the fall, but this time around, the store is prepared to sell an improved selection of masks made to fit a wider range of face shapes.

“If [COVID-19] does come back and people are masking up again, we’re going to put out a better product,” she said. “I think people now know what they want to buy, too.”

The burgeoning interest in masks could be good business for West Bridgewater-based fabric manufacturer Shawmut Corp. It supplies N-95 masks and isolation gowns to medical clinics, pharmaceutical companies, and research laboratories, in addition to selling personal protective equipment directly to customers online.

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Over the past week or two, Shawmut has noticed a “dramatic uptick” in sales, said CEO James Wyner.

After having laid off about 100 people as a result of a downturn in demand for PPE earlier this summer, the company may eventually bring back all of those workers as the need for production ramps up, according to Wyner.

And because Shawmut provides mask filter material to other manufacturers, Wyner has noticed that his partners in the market are seeing orders spike as well.

“We don’t know how sustainable [this increase] is,“ he said. “If it stays at this level, then we’re going to have to add production pretty rapidly to keep up.”

Mark Pothier of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Angela Yang can be reached at angela.yang@globe.com.