Kelsy Hartley of Flowfold assembles face shields for health care workers while keeping herself safe with a protective shield and gloves. At right is the industrial cutting machine used to make the shields. The company shifted from making wallets to face shields early in the pandemic. Credit: Courtesy of Flowfold

Ben Waxman is restarting his five-year-old apparel company again after making a wholesale shift to manufacturing masks and face shields during the pandemic.

His company, American Roots, had pivoted to making personal protective equipment after demand for its custom-logo clothing and blankets dried up in March 2020 as conventions were canceled and employees worked from home.

He initially laid off 80 percent of his 27 workers, but was able to rehire them and quadruple his employee count by last June, when American Roots was making 50,000 reusable masks per week. It sold more than 1 million masks last year.

“We had to do this or we would have been done,” Waxman, CEO and co-owner of the Westbrook-based company, said.

With vaccines diminishing demand for protective gear and cheaper mask imports flooding the market, he has returned to the apparel business and trimmed his workforce by half to 60. Even though positive public health outcomes prompted the change, it came swiftly and as another shock to businesses that ramped up quickly to produce essential goods.

American Roots is not alone as others who stepped up to make personal protective equipment found that the market had started evaporating at the end of last year. Now, they are trying to get back to normal as they face different market conditions.

Sea Bags, Maine Craft Distilling, Ntension, L.L. Bean and Flowfold are among the other Maine companies that added protective equipment products. New Balance also made face masks in some of its Maine shoe factories.

The shift back to retail sales is taking longer than expected at American Roots, Waxman said, but the company still expects revenue this year to reach $3 million, double the amount in 2019 before the pandemic.

Hyperlite Mountain Gear is seeing a stronger bounceback as consumers flock outdoors and buy recreational gear, said co-founder Dan St. Pierre. The Biddeford-based company also laid off half of its staff when the pandemic began, but by April it had created a reusable mask and it was able to rehire most workers. It sold about 500,000 masks last year.

“Sales fell off the table,” he said. “But now there is extremely strong demand.”

Gorham-based Flowfold is seeing a surge in demand for its lightweight backpacks, wallets and other outdoor gear. Online sales are up 40 percent over last year because more people became accustomed to online shopping during the pandemic and they are eager to get outside, said Devin McNeill, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

Flowfold began the shift from face shields to its outdoor gear last fall after collaborating with American Roots and others to make the shields. Flowfold hired 50 people and boosted production from 1,000 to 50,000 face shields a month.

The regular supply chain for face shields was able to meet demand by the end of the year, McNeill said, and that coincided with customers ordering outdoor gear for the holidays.

“We took a lot of lessons away that we can apply to make our manufacturing process better,” he said.

Waxman echoed that, but said the federal government needed to make more assistance available more quickly to companies like American Roots, which invested $400,000 in training employees and new production equipment. American Roots and other companies had to scramble to help meet the sudden, huge demand for personal protective equipment brought on by the pandemic, which he hoped was “a wake-up call to our country that we cannot rely on cheap overseas products.”

The Westbrook factory also had a couple of virus outbreaks among its employees that prompted temporary shutdowns, but it tested workers weekly and sprayed down the mask factory three times a week.

With 95 percent of its workforce vaccinated, American Roots lifted its mask requirement about two weeks ago.

“It was the first time many workers had ever seen each other,” he said. “It was a moment I definitely won’t forget.”

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...