Keeping Your Small Business Open and Safe During the Pandemic

We spoke with Project N95 Executive Director Anne Miller about masking, ventilation, managing COVID fatigue, and more.

Sep 14, 2021 · 6 min read

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going anywhere, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to live our lives and operate our businesses. In fact, through a combination of vaccines, ventilation, and masks, it’s possible to operate safely and efficiently.

That’s according to Project N95, a national nonprofit that exists to help people live and work safely. Started in 2020 as a clearinghouse for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, Project N95 has grown into a trusted source for PPE, COVID-19 tests, and public health information.

Hello Alice recently partnered with Project N95 to create a step-by-step guide to keeping your small business open and safe during the pandemic. Project N95 Executive Director Anne Miller also joined Hello Alice for an open discussion with small business owners. In conversation with our community, Miller shared information about mitigating risk for your team and customers, how to think about mask recommendations and requirements, and recent developments that make diagnostic testing simple.

Below, we’ve included a recording of the webinar and broke down some of the key questions raised during the conversation. For an in-depth explanation of how to reopen your business and operate safely, you can reference our guide published in partnership with Project N95.

Q: Why do I need an N95 mask?

Not all masks are created equal. Experts agree that N95 masks remain one of the most effective ways for you to protect yourself from the virus.

The name “N95” refers to the filtration of the respirator. N95s filter out at least 95% of non-oil (hence the N) particles at .3 microns and larger (including particles containing the coronavirus).

“It can filter out a lot of virus in the air, but it confers its protection by its fit,” Miller said. “Almost all N95s are fit by compression.”

That means you must ensure a proper fit with the mask to ensure its effectiveness.

Q: What tips do you have for a comfortable fit while wearing an N95?

Miller said you should experiment with different types of masks — strapless, head-strap, etc. — to find the mask you personally find most comfortable. What type of mask you wear might also depend on the setting and duration of its use.

“When it’s raining, I’m wearing a raincoat,” Miller said. “When it’s sunny, I’m in shorts. I don’t feel like I have to have the same mask for all circumstances.”

Bottom line: Make sure it fits and you’re wearing it correctly. If your glasses are fogging up or you feel air leaking from the sides, your mask is likely not fitted properly.

Q: Are there enough N95 masks to go around?

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a need to conserve PPE to ensure that healthcare workers and other first responders were able to get the protection they needed to work safely. That is no longer the case.

“I appreciate the desire to be careful and not take more than our fair share,” Miller said, “but there have been a number of domestic manufacturers that have entered the market. There is enough supply.”

Through suppliers such as Project N95, high-quality PPE is both affordable and easy to access. You can now purchase N95 makes for as little as 80 cents each, even in small quantities suited to individuals and small businesses.

You are welcome to contact the team at Project N95 with any questions about PPE or to inquire about solutions for your business.

Q: What should I look for when shopping for N95 masks?

Different manufacturers produce masks according to different standards. American-made N95 masks are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). KN95 masks, on the other hand, align with a standard set by the Chinese government. Both types offer excellent protection.

Miller cautioned that there are many fakes out there. For example, some masks claim to be “FDA approved,” despite the fact that the FDA does not approve masks. “There’s been a lot of opportunity for profiteering,” Miller said.

Purchasing through Project N95 — a nonprofit that does not benefit from sales — is one way to ensure you are buying authentic, high-quality PPE and testing.

Q: Are cloth masks an OK alternative to N95s?

Miller said that cloth masks are not nearly as effective. “All the aerosol experts are saying that because of the nature of cloth, it’s not providing filtration,” she said.

You can greatly improve the effectiveness of a cloth mask by adding a removable filter, but a proper-fitting N95 mask is still the best choice.

Q: How long can I use a mask before switching it out?

Thankfully, masks can be used multiple times. The common recommendation is to rotate a set of masks out over the course of a week.

Miller agrees and swears by a simple-yet-foolproof trick to determine when a mask reached the end of its life: “I use the sniff test!” Additionally, if it’s gotten wet, if the seal is no longer secure, or if the straps have weakened, it’s time to retire the mask in question.

Q: I’m confused about the difference between at-home antigen testing and PCR tests. Which should I choose?

PCR tests available through pharmacies and healthcare provides are some of the most accurate and help identify infections early-on. That said, they are more costly and require a professional lab to analyze.

Miller emphasized that at-home antigen tests, such as the BinaxNOW rapid test from Abbott, are excellent for regular workplace screening. These simple tests are similar in design to at-home pregnancy tests: You conduct the test and deliver results quickly via the supplies in the kit. However, you sacrifice a bit of accuracy for convenience. Antigen tests require a higher level of virus in a test sample before the test will turn positive. In some cases, this may lead to a false negative. Experts recommend that you repeat a test over multiple days to improve the chance of detecting asymptomatic infections. Many tests come in a two-pack to account for this.

If any of the testing products at Project N95 are out of stock, feel free to contact [email protected], where customer service agents can help you find a suitable alternative.

Q: How can I help my employees and customers feel safe in my business?

For employees, you can offer access to regular testing and provide PPE such as masks.

For customers, there are a few recommendations. First is to be clear about what safety measures you’re taking in your stores. Place signage in your window detailing your mask policy and signal whether your employees are being tested regularly.

A measure you can take to ensure safety for all is to ensure proper ventilation. In some seasons and climates, this is as simple as opening doors and windows to ensure a cross-breeze. When this isn’t possible, Miller recommended purchasing an air purifier with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter to eliminate virus particles.

Project N95 offers several high-quality air purifiers in their online shop.

Q: Air purifiers are expensive. Is there a more budget-friendly method?

Yes! DIY air purifiers can be effective alternatives to store-bought units. One design, called the Corsi-Rosenthal Cube, can offer whole-room air cleaning performance comparable to commercial HEPA air cleaners that are 10x (or more) the cost. All you need in a standard box fan, some high-quality furnace filters, and a lot of duct tape. A recent NPR article walks you through all the steps required to get you up and running.

Just one of these improvised purifiers can provide reliable filtration for a whole room for as long as a year at a time. If your space is particularly large, you can construct multiple cubes.

Q: We’ve been at this for more than 18 months. What advice do you have for those feeling the COVID fatigue?

If you are feeling exhausted by the pandemic, you’re not alone. “I look forward to a day when I have a conversation with someone that isn’t about COVID,” Miller said.

The priority remains vaccination, she said. If you and your employees have received your vaccine, you should still prioritize ventilation and mask wearing until a time where community spread is no longer a reality — and that may not be for a long time. At the end of the day, we all need to find a way to live and work safely that feels sustainable.

“Go out there and be protected and live your life,” Miller said. “We’re going to have some form of this for quite a while. Rather than wanting a return to normal, this is our new normal.”

Still have questions? We have an in-depth guide prepared to walk you through the steps and helpful resources to continue operating safely: