Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, China’s Sneaker Manufacturers Are Now Making Face Masks

As China battles the spread of the deadly coronavirus that has infected more than 44,000 and killed at least 1,113, the sneaker manufacturing capital of Putian is parlaying its shoemaking expertise into face mask production.

According a report from Shine, a Shanghai Daily publication, the city is now producing more than a million of the protective masks per day, despite having no factories that specialize in the product. Instead, a task force comprising government officials, the Putian footwear association, its industry and information technology bureau and manufacturing executives developed and implemented a plan to retrofit diaper factories to produce the three-layer masks, and tapped shoe manufacturers to add the nose pieces and ear loops.

“We found the most difficult part [of producing masks] is fusion techniques, while the sewing, hot melt and welding machines and UV sterilization system at shoemaking firms would come in handy,” Chen Wenbiao, president of the Putian footwear association, told the publication.

Ten of the city’s shoe factories are now each tasked with producing 200,000 masks per day — enough to meet the needs of Putian’s nearly 3 million residents. About a tenth of the city’s population is employed in the footwear trade, according to Reuters, and brands like Nike, Puma and Adidas have produced sneakers in Putian for decades. This history has also led to a thriving market in counterfeit sneakers, many of which are high-quality enough to pass for the real thing.

The rapid spread of the coronavirus from its epicenter in Wuhan has put a strain on the supply of face masks in many parts of China, where tens of millions of residents are now required to wear them every time they leave the home. As a result, a wide range of Chinese manufacturers are stepping in to meet the demand, including oil and gas giants and auto companies.

On Tuesday, a Chinese government researcher estimated that the virus could trim as much as one percentage point off the country’s GDP growth in 2020, and one report found that more than 400 companies globally — including Skechers USA Inc., Tapestry Inc. and Capri Holdings Ltd. — have already seen or forecast a negative impact on their businesses.

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