America’s Mask Makers Want to End Tariff Exemptions for Made in China Face Masks

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Sep 15 2021 |
Employees of Luosh USA, which makes its surgical face masks in Marietta, Ga. Photo courtesy Luosh USA

The American Mask Manufacturer’s Association, formed this year to strengthen domestic manufacturing of PPE and its related supply chains, is warning its members risk going out of business if policymakers don’t act.

Think back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

The U.S. was terribly unprepared. The country didn’t have enough personal protective equipment like face masks, and years of relying on imports meant that we didn’t have the means to quickly ramp up production, either. Meanwhile, China’s government stopped exporting them, which meant there wasn’t any way to get masks, either.

The real world impacts were devastating. Medical personnel at the front lines of the virus found themselves reusing equipment like N95 masks, despite the dangers. A black market quickly formed. Clothing manufacturers like American Roots and American Giant shut off their normal production lines making hoodies and started making face masks.

It was a major lesson about the consequences of becoming too dependent on imports, and one that was learned the hard way. But the only silver lining seemed to be that it also appeared to be a turning point, as there was widespread bipartisan agreement that the United States needed to reshore and ramp up its critical manufacturing capabilities, especially for things like PPE.

Flash forward to today. The COVID-19 pandemic roars on, but both surgical and N95 masks are plentiful, in part because American manufacturers large and small did their part to ramp up production of the equipment. Many of these companies started from scratch, aiming to help their fellow Americans and ensure that the country is better prepared moving ahead.

But now many of those Made in America mask makers are under attack. If policymakers don’t act, the United States could end up right back in the terrible, no good very bad place where it started.

China’s government has lifted its export restrictions on its face masks, which are heavily subsidized and priced far below market value. Some Made in China masks are being sold for as little as a penny per mask. That’s unfairly undercutting American mask producers, who abide by stricter labor and environmental guidelines and operate in a free market. More than 6,000 U.S. workers hired to make masks during the pandemic have lost their jobs as a result of China’s unfair practices.

(We’ll also note that many Made in China masks also have been found to be deficient and unsafe. The FDA last year banned 65 medical manufacturers from selling their Chinese-made N95 masks, while the Justice Department has even charged one company with selling a defective product.)

But despite the dangers, Made in China masks continue to sell in the United States, and the U.S. is playing right into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s all part of the CCP playbook: Heavily subsidize a product and price it so cheap that the competition is eliminated. Then, control the global market.

We’ve seen it time and time again, from electronics to steel to electric buses to clothing. And China controlled the PPE market for so long, it is just invoking the same strategy to dominate once again.

The CCP is not likely to change its ways any time soon, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. is helpless, either. There’s a lot that we can do to counter China and strengthen our domestic manufacturing of PPE.

The American Mask Manufacturer’s Association (AMMA), a group of more than two dozen independent American mask manufacturers, formed in March to push for policy to strengthen domestic manufacturing of PPE and ensure these companies can survive long-term. And the AMMA is arguing that it is time to level the playing field for American producers.

Right now, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is accepting public comments on exclusions to “Section 301” tariffs on Chinese imports. Certain Chinese-made products, including PPE, were exempted from the tariffs at the start of the pandemic as the U.S. needed to secure as much as possible.

But now that there’s a domestic manufacturing industry for face masks — and Chinese producers are heavily undercutting American companies — it’s time to end those exemptions, according to the AMMA.

Politico Morning Trade reported that the AMMA urged USTR “to close the exemptions for face masks, saying its members are ‘getting KILLED by China.'” The group told USTR that tariffs won’t solve the problem entirely, but will “at least help American producers a small amount.”

Some mask makers argue that continued dependency on imports at all is a national security threat, and its time to stop importing masks altogether. Prestige Ameritech vice president Mike Bowen told CNN that “any plan that government has that allows foreign masks in the US will fail to secure the supply chain.”

At the very least, the U.S. government shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money on foreign-made masks when there are plenty of U.S. manufacturers and workers ready to do the job.

The National Council of Textile Manufacturers (NCTO) is among the organizations calling for strong procurement policies to require the government to purchase Made in America PPE, including for the national stockpile. Putting this policy in place now will ensure that American producers have a stable customer base once the pandemic ends for good — and will be positioned to ramp up production when the next crisis hits. In addition, the NCTO is advocating for federal incentives for private sector purchases of American-made PPE, along with funding to rebuild supply chains.

The Biden administration has acknowledged the need to shore up PPE production, both of the equipment itself and related supply chains. President Biden signed an executive order in February examining supply chains, and the president reflected on the PPE shortages during the pandemic.

“We heard horror stories of doctors and nurses wearing trash bags over their gown — over their dress in order to — so they wouldn’t be in trouble, because they had no gowns.  And they were rewashing and reusing their masks over and over again in the OR,” Biden said. “That should never have never happened.  And this will never happen again in the United States, period.  We shouldn’t have to rely on a foreign country — especially one that doesn’t share our interests or our values — in order to protect and provide our people during a national emergency.”

American workers and manufacturers stepped up to make PPE during the darkest days of the pandemic, and now both the Biden administration and Members of Congress must make good on their promises and ensure American production of PPE continues. In the meantime, all of us can do our part to support Made in USA mask manufacturers by purchasing American-made N95 and other face masks. We’ve put together lists of Made in America mask makers here, here, and here.