Profiteers and Pool Noodles: The Mask Market Is a Total Mess

The people jumping into the mask market come from across the spectrum. Dan Schonfeld, for instance, sells pool noodles. He’s pretty good at it, too. He found a reliable supplier in China, slapped sports teams’ logos on them and built a steady business through

When the coronavirus spread last month to his home state, New York, Mr. Schonfeld thought he could use his connections in China to get masks to American doctors. He dropped his pool-supply business and began pursuing masks, vowing not to earn a cent.

“The fast-forward button was pressed at that moment, and it really hasn’t stopped,” Mr. Schonfeld, 40, said. “I don’t think I slept for four nights straight.”

He worked his iPhone around the clock, calling American hospitals by day and Chinese contacts by night. The hospitals were all interested, but reliable masks were in short supply.

Then, just before midnight on March 19, his pool-noodle supplier in Ningbo, China, Jensen Jiang, emailed with news. He had secured a deal with a nearby factory for 100,000 N95 masks at $2.70 each. But competing orders were coming in, he said, so Mr. Schonfeld had to decide quickly.

“Tomorrow is too late,” Mr. Jiang wrote. Mr. Schonfeld told him to place the $35,000 deposit.

The next day, Mr. Schonfeld excitedly called the hospitals. But executives who had expressed such desperation for masks were suddenly wary of turning over $270,000 to a man who was selling pool parts just days before. One replied “We just don’t know you,” Mr. Schonfeld said. “It turned into me needing help.”

Eventually, his lawyers found a new buyer: a network of nonprofits that care for 35,000 New Yorkers with intellectual disabilities. They wired the money, and Mr. Schonfeld booked a cargo flight.

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