Demand for face shields looks to be heating up as Canadians seek summertime COVID protection

If wearing a face mask seemed strange to most people not so long ago, wearing a plastic face shield had to be downright weird.

But as summertime arrives in Canada, interest in the plastic face coverings is heating up with the weather. Already in regular use by medical staff and some members of the public, face shields appear to be gaining appeal, boosting sales for manufacturers.

Fans say the devices are not only cooler to wear than cloth masks, but they allow for better breathing, make it easier to be understood when speaking. And most importantly, they offer better protection from the virus.

“Face shields protect your eyes, your nose and your mouth,” said Dr. Michael Edmond, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, who recently published an article promoting shields in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Those are the three areas where the virus can enter the body.”

Edmond said while face masks are intended to protect others, a face shield protects the wearer.

“Masks are really being recommended to control the virus at source, not to protect you,” he said.

Coming soon to retail

Aurora, Ont.-based auto parts maker Axiom, which got into the personal protective equipment (PPE) business at the onset of the pandemic, is in the process of finalizing a deal with a major national retail chain.

“We just got confirmation that we will be found in their online store as the Axiom face shield,” said Max Preston, general manager of the company division that makes the shields.

“If it sells well online, then they’ll bring it into the storefront.”

Axiom’s Canadian-made face shield should be available to consumers in the next few weeks. (Submitted by Axiom)

Then there’s the Canadian Shield, a Waterloo, Ont., startup making millions of face shields for health-care providers and essential workers. It has just launched sales to the general public.

“Demand is quite high,” said founder Jeremy Hedges, who says orders for 1,000 shields poured in as soon as the product was offered to consumers.

“I think especially when it’s hot outside, wearing a face shield is a really great way for people to socialize.”

But what about the vanity factor? Unlike masks, which are available in colourful, playful and even dressy styles, most face shields on the market look more like what riot police wear — an image seen in many disturbing news reports lately.

Bulky and uncomfortable vs. fashionable

“They’re bulky, they’re uncomfortable, they’re awkward,” said Joe Doucet, a New York City-based multidisciplinary designer who works in consumer electronics, graphic design, architecture and fashion.

“It’s completely alien to put one on. You feel like you’re living in a bad dystopian future.”

But after Doucet read several articles about how effective the devices are in preventing COVID-19 contagion, he concluded people should be encouraged to wear face shields.

“I thought that if I can make them stylish and cool, people would want to wear them,” he said.

The Canadian Shield founder Jeremy Hedges wears one of his products in the company’s Waterloo, Ont., factory. It is producing a million shields a week. (Submitted by The Canadian Shield)

He based his new design on the look of sunglasses and posted pictures to Instagram. “The response was overwhelming,” he said. “I would wake up to a thousand emails every day.”

His company has partnered with manufacturers in Italy and Germany to have the shields made, and Doucet says they’ll be taking orders within a couple of weeks.

“We’re licensing the design to different brands to have sports versions and so on to reach the scale of manufacturing to meet the level of demand,” he said.

Made in Canada

Hedges of the Canadian Shield says Canada’s shortage of PPE at the onset of the pandemic has had a positive result in that there are now plenty of domestic suppliers. 

“We’ve learned the hard way that the global supply chain is not going to make Canada a priority,” he said.

Hedges expects that many Canadian manufacturers will move production back home in wake of the pandemic.

“We have an opportunity to re-envision how our economy works, and everything essential is going to be made here,” he said.

The 27-year-old entrepreneur — who had already founded an educational technology company called InkSmith — landed a federal government contract in April to make 10 million masks for health-care and other essential workers. Once he was confident that the Canadian Shield could deliver on that commitment, he opened sales to retail consumers.

He’s been hiring as quickly as he can, growing his team from just 10 employees to 270.

WATCH | Jeremy Hedges on pivoting to make medical face shields:

Several Canadian companies quickly shifted their production lines to making medical face shields thanks to innovation and some government funding. 3:24

“We didn’t intend on this being a business,” said Hedges, whose other company sells 3D printers, laser cutters, robotic kits and other technology for use in classrooms.

With that kind of equipment already on hand, the company was able to switch quickly to making face shields at the start of the COVID crisis when it became public that PPE was in short supply.

“Within half an hour, we were starting to make shields,” said Hedges.

Shields in stores, classrooms

Proponents of shields say that even if the devices don’t become as commonly used in public as face masks, shields will become the norm in certain settings, such as retail environments.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, for example, has made shields “compulsory” for staff in all of its stores, according to an email statement provided to CBC News.

Face shields also serve well in restaurant and retail situations, where clear communication helps. (Tatan Syuflana/The Associated Press)

Joe Doucet says that a shield enables business interactions better than a mask. “If you’re a sales person and you’re trying to get people to come into your store, it’s going to be easier if you can communicate, and someone can see you and hear you properly.”

Classroom settings are another natural fit, according to Maureen Taylor, a physician assistant at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto who says schools will soon need to consider shields.

“Kids can’t be trusted with masks,” she said. “They’re going to take them off; they’re going to fool around with them. But if we can give them a face shield that has Paw Patrol or Superwoman on it, then I could see kids wearing face shields in the classroom.”

She points out that seeing a person’s facial expression plays a key role in communication, which is of particular importance in teaching.

Dr. Michael Edmond and his colleagues would like to see “everybody” wearing a face shield.

“We would expect that if we could get high levels of compliance with face shields, we would have a major impact on reducing transmission,” he said. “But it’s a new concept for people. It may take us a little bit of time.”

David Lin, studio director at LNG Studios in Vancouver, builds a protective face shield with a 3D printer. The company has been making up to 40 protective face shields per day for hospitals in need in the area. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

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