DAVE LIEBER / JAN 22
Behind the Mask
Two guys start a D-FW mask factory but can’t catch a break. Forget made in Texas. China always wins.
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
They named their mask the 1836 to show their patriotism, but they’re going down like the fighters in the Alamo.
Meet John K. Bielamowicz and David Baillargeon, owners of 9-month-old United States Mask Co. in northwest Fort Worth. They have a dream built on quaint notions of protecting Americans and strengthening our national security.
So noble. So idealistic. So screwed.
They put their money and their heart into this. They built the equipment, bought the materials, hired the workers. They hung two large flags, U.S. and Texas, on their factory walls to remind them of their mission.
Their N95 mask earned its safety certification from the feds. They even named their mask after the most famous year in Texas history. Meet the 1836 mask. Remember the Alamo.
Off to a good start, but then John and David ran into a force so powerful it threatens to shut their business down before it gets off the ground.
But it’s not only the Chinese’ world-renowned price cutting that’s giving them fits. China is getting an assist from American buyers who prefer paying less for masks instead of boosting made in America, made in Texas, made in Dallas/Fort Worth.
These guys couldn’t even catch a break in their home county. The Tarrant County purchasing department disqualified them from bidding. It’s a little fishy. The two guys say Tarrant asked for specific Chinese models, which ruled them out. County officials say it’s because the local masks weren’t tested by the public health department. But hey, the feds have already given the 1836 the safety seal of approval.
Remember the early days of coronavirus when there weren’t enough masks or protective gear, when scammers took advantage, when panic set in? America’s reliance on China for medical products is a huge issue, David says. “It’s why we founded the company.”
“We thought there’d be a line of customers out the door. But we’re being blocked at every corner. It’s frustrating.” “We lived, ate, breathed and slept everything N95,” David says. “There’s no guidebook, and it’s not easy. The application process alone is 100 pages long.”But they did it. Their first mask was born in October. It’s framed on the office wall.
Elsewhere in the building, there are another 200,000 masks in storage. “We’re running a little slow because we don’t have many orders,” John says. You’d think they could advertise, but they can’t in a place that matters. Have you been to Google lately and searched for “buy N95 mask”? You don’t get products. You get a warning from Google: “Product availability may be limited, and we’ve removed results with excessive price increases.”
The two guys say they are having difficulties placing online ads because hosts don’t want to be associated with fraud that runs wild in the mask industry.
“We’ve been fighting tooth and nail to get into the game,” John says. “ We tried so hard.”Both men spoke at the public meeting of the Tarrant County Commissioners this month to complain about the disqualification in their home county.Representatives from the county purchasing department and health department defended their decision, saying the county hadn’t tested the United States Mask product (even though the feds did). But there was pushback from County Judge Glen Whitley and Commissioner Roy Brooks, who said, “I would like to see local companies get a chance... I would like to see you work with these guys.”
There’s also that nagging issue of price. The two guys bid $2.50 for each mask for the county’s 100,000 mask order. Competitors came in below $2. The two guys say they have wiggle room.Whitley said federal testing is good enough for him, but state law makes it difficult for governments to not accept the lowest bid.Yeah, the two guys have some pricing issues to work out.
"We’re not giving up on this,” John says. “If Tarrant County doesn’t buy our N95s, this country still needs them. We’re going to work harder and be more patient.”
“This is a huge wake up call,” David says. “Relying on China for our safety, I think most people would agree, is not a smart decision.”
In the meantime, know anybody that needs 200,000 life-saving masks? I can hook you up with the 1836. Remember the Alamo.
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