Face masks with a straw hole? An expert weighs in on New Orleans brand's creation

Instagram/ellenmacomber

In efforts to curb the transmission of COVID-19, people the world over have been making their own face masks out of everything from socks to bandanas.

A designer in New Orleans with a penchant for partying has put a whole new spin on the humble pieces, fashioning bedecked face masks with a small opening at the mouth, just the right size to fit a drinking straw. 

“We’re all in New Orleans, and here in New Orleans, we like to drink,” artist Ellen Macomber told Fast Company.

Macomber, who creates everything from caftans and capes to carnival couture, began making masks in response to public demand and as a way to keep her assistant employed despite decreased revenue due to the disappearance of tourist dollars. 

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A friend suggested Macomber insert a small hole in the masks to fit a straw to sip cocktails — for “social distancing drinking.”

On the first round, Macomber and her assistant produced 40 masks in one week, selling them for $30 each. They sold out within half an hour.

Some are adorned with purple, orange, mint, or hot-pink sequins. Others have gold or silver brocade or feature fabric with floral, wood grain, or bird prints. Each one takes an hour to complete.

Macomber, who also makes elaborate masks without straw holes as well as basic cotton masks, doesn’t make any false claims about the masks’ protection against COVID-19. 

“Fabric face masks of any kind whether there is a drinking hole or not, only protect other people from you spray,” she notes on her website. “What is a spray you ask?!?  Any projectile spit, snot, sneeze, cough, or other fluids sprayed when not wearing a covering….If you require a COVID-19 protective mask I advise that you purchase a hospital grade face mask or those that protect you against COVID of any kind. I can’t re-iderate [sic] enough, any fabric masks minimize your liquid spray they do not protect you from COVID-19.” 

She’s right — and experts say the idea of a mask with a drinking hole is even further flawed.

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Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, associate professor in the department of biology at York University, tells Yahoo Canada that only N95 respirators can filter 95 percent of microorganisms (including virus particles) and that these primarily serve the purpose of protecting the public from respiratory droplets released from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people, those who carry the virus whether they are aware of it or not.

“The opening in front of the face defeats the purpose of the mask: that of preventing the respiratory droplets from being released in the environment from the carrier of the [virus],” says Golemi-Kotra, whose research focuses on viral and bacterial infections. “A cute idea, but flawed.”

What’s more, people who wear any kind of mask may end up putting themselves at greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) than those who go without because they may be more prone to touch their face to adjust the mask or lift it up and down to eat—or to get a straw through a small hole. 

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“Until a vaccine or a treatment is found and used for the general public, we have to find ways to protect ourselves from catching the virus and preventing its transmission while we get on with our lives,” Golemi-Kotra says.

“In the current situation where there is a lot of anxiety of the unknown, where there is a lot we don’t know about the biology of COVID-19 disease, any creative idea that can lessen or lighten the burden of these anxieties is welcome, but we should be vigilant not to become complacent and tweak the protective gears that are advised to keep us safe,” she adds. “

Cloth face masks are not a perfect solution, but they offer some protection. Tweaking them further will render them completely useless.”