A high-tech COVID-19 mask
Helly Hansen tackles another “element”
The Norwegian American
A few weeks ago, Walter Hanson, who has owned The Nordic Shop in Rochester, Minn., since 1974, went to get a drink of water and ended up with more water on his face than in his mouth. He had forgotten he was wearing his comfortable Helly Hansen mask.
“It’s a good thing to remember,” he laughed during a Skype interview. “I can wear it all day long when I’m in the store or when I’m out. I hardly know that I have it on. It just feels that comfortable.” His staff also had a laugh about it, but Hanson has a sense of humor. “You know, old age. I’m entitled to my senior moment.”
Beyond its comfort, the mask is antibacterial, antiviral, and bidirectional (in and out) and the moisture evaporates, providing better breathability. It doesn’t fog up glasses. Further, it’s machine washable up to around 100 times—“they’re always in the wash, we’re always rotating. We’ve got a new one each day” Hanson said.
For Helly Hansen, this business idea came serendipitously. The Norwegian company is known for its rainwear, outerwear, and outdoor recreational gear. With time on their hands because of the coronavirus, some of the designers contemplated what they could contribute with their specialized materials.
“Here’s all these tech guys that are used to doing high-tech gear for outdoor wear,” said Hanson. “They’ve never done antiviral, antibacterial. They had no clue what a lot of that was. They were just trying to figure out a way to do something that would be a nice Helly Hansen mask for the company to use globally. … It was a neat design, just nice and simple, purely Scandinavian.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) then sent inquiries to companies making masks, so they could evaluate them. When the WHO contacted Helly Hansen, the designers were nervous they had done something wrong. To their surprise, the WHO suggested that the mask’s properties would be good for health-care workers on the frontlines, according to Hanson. “This company has always been at the forefront in protecting people from the elements. [The coronavirus] was another element,” he said.
The mask uses Helly Hansen’s Lifa material, which helps with wicking and contributes to the comfort, breathability, and antibacterial protection. The main benefit comes from the three layers of 100% polypropylene composition. The color choices are black and white, with sizes small/medium and large/extra-large. They cost $15 on The Nordic Shop website, with proceeds going to a COVID-19 response fund.
When Helly Hansen needed an American supplier for the masks, it was natural for The Nordic Shop, which sells so many of their other products, to show up on the scene.
“This was at the beginning of COVID.” Hanson recalls. “At that point, we were closed because of executive orders from our state. We were just doing website orders, and we were ramping those up to make up for not being open. We were in the process of trying to find some things to market that would make us unique.” It was then they turned to Norway. “We’ve got some friends at Helly in the design department. We got a hold of them,” Hanson said. The rest is history.
And The Nordic Shop’s employees have also bought in. “Some of our staff have asthma and conditions like that,” said Hanson. “They just love the mask. They say, ‘this is easy to wear.’ Everyone wears them here and everybody sees our staff wearing them.”
Locally, the renowned Mayo Clinic is a golf drive away—“And I’m not a good golfer,” jokes Hanson—but the mask has yet to take off in the medical setting. For one thing, the Helly Hansen mask “is not medical grade, and it was never meant to be,” said Hanson. Still, he said, “we sell a lot to people who work at Mayo, who use them when they’re not at Mayo. It’s gotten to be the mask of choice.”
While they are preparing to expand their market beyond the Scandinavian niche, The Nordic Shop has already made sales in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Canada, in addition to the United States. Hanson is not aware of whether the Transportation Security Administration is using them, but small companies, visitors’ bureaus in small- to medium-sized towns are buying them for their employees.
“It’s fun just to see where they’re going,” said Hanson. “We’re getting so many emails back saying, ‘this is so great. I tried several others. This really works. I’m getting them for my whole family. I bought some for our visitors’ group.’ Everyone loves them.”
Any feedback from the anti-mask people?
“No, we have a city mandate that masks are to be worn everywhere, which matches Mayo Clinic policy,” said Hanson. “We, as a city, don’t want to invite COVID into this area. We have followed fairly closely the Mayo Clinic guidelines on all of the distancing, the masks, the cleaning. We try to provide as safe an environment as we can.”
What happens when COVID-19 is finally over and we don’t need masks?
“I look forward to the day that we don’t ship a mask,” said Hanson. “That would make me a very happy boy, because that would mean that we’re kind of going back to some form of normalcy. … We’ll be starting to get back to a little bit more life as we used to know it. It’ll be a great day that I don’t have to ship another mask. I love shipping sweaters. I have some raingear from Helly Hansen, Fjällräven coats—you name it. It’ll be nice just getting back to doing that.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.