AFTER THE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended widespread use of face masks to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), the minimalist medical mask quickly got reimagined as a fashion accessory. Then model Naomi Campbell — a famous germaphobe — and musician Erykah Badu stepped it up a notch, sporting custom hazmat suits for stylish social distancing. Now, with the novel coronavirus pandemic showing no sign of slowing, travelers are taking note.
Yezin Al-Qaysi says haute hazmats are just the thing to make flying feel safe again. In mid-April the co-founder of VYZR Technologies, a Toronto-based company specializing in personal protective gear, launched a new product called the BioVYZR via crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The $250, futuristic-looking outer layer resembles the top half of an astronaut’s uniform, with anti-fogging “windows” and a built-in hospital-grade air-purifying device. Paranoid flyers were quick to scoop it up, pre-ordering about 50,000 suits and raising $400,000 for the nascent company. The first batch is set to be delivered by the end of July.
Nobody, not even Al-Qaysi, knows how TSA officials or airline staff will react to the suit, but that hasn’t dissuaded such early adopters as Ginny Maxwell, a talent manager based in Nashville. The mother of two children aged 10 and four had been on the fence about returning this fall to her childhood home of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands to see her parents. “I was especially concerned about our four-year-old not being able to keep a mask on for a flight,” she says.
After learning about BioVYZR through an e-mail from Indiegogo, she and her husband decided that being laughed at for looking like Teletubbies would be worth a degree of safety; $1,000 later, the family of four feels better prepared to travel.
“They give us a lot of peace of mind,” says Maxwell. “And the kids are excited to wear their ‘space helmets.’ If nothing else, they will be a strange souvenir of this crazy time.”
Al-Qaysi says the suit is an adaptation of his company’s first invention, a solar visor meant to provide hands-free shade in desert environments.
“When the [COVID-19] outbreak happened, we realized that in a perfect world, everyone would have access to a Powered Air Purifying Respirator,” he says, referring to a respirator device that provides clean, filtered air from a lithium battery-operated blower. PAPRs provide more protection than a face mask but aren’t as extreme as a full hazmat suit, ordinarily taking the form of a loose-fitting hood or helmet. They’re commonly used by firefighters, medical workers, and people in pharmaceutical and chemical labs.
“We’ve taken a product usually limited to healthcare and industrial settings that’s typically priced around $1,800 and adapted it to be accessible to the public,” says Al-Qaysi.
He declined to give the name or affiliation of the infectious-disease doctor who consulted on the design, raising questions as to how legitimately the product has been tested.
Constructed from silicone, neoprene, and vinyl, the BioVYZR weighs less than three pounds and is easy to disinfect and pack away between uses. A chest harness, currently available only in a general adult size and a general child size, sits on the shoulders; two adjustable side straps with buckles can be cinched around the waist, similar to those of a life jacket.
An upgrade from the standard face shield, the suit’s tightly sealed, anti-fogging helmet has two peripheral windows for optimal visibility. While the suit looks as if it could stifle the wearer, Al-Qaysi says it is only 1 degree to 2 degrees F warmer than without the suit. Less comfortable, perhaps, is the fact that it adds four to five inches of height, which would make tall travelers fit even more awkwardly into the cramped quarters of an airline coach seat.
The BioVYZR fits snugly below the shoulders, so it shouldn’t interfere with your neighbor’s space aloft. It will, however, cripple any attempt at making small talk with you. In addition to blocking airborne contaminants, the BioVYZR dampens outside sound; a seat mate or flight attendant can hear a user clearly but cannot be heard.
The helmet’s lithium-ion batteries last up to 12 hours on a single charge, keeping them within approved TSA guidelines. (While lithium-ion batteries are not allowed in checked luggage, they’re generally allowed in carry-ons.)
WHO’S BUYING — AND WHO’S NOT
So far, customers have included doctors, dentists, hairstylists, and long-haul travelers, though Al-Qaysi has seen a recent surge in interest from teachers and school administrators looking for a way to keep staff safe as schools look to reopen.
The design isn’t perfect. Based on feedback and insights from the crowdfunding community, VYZR Technologies has already made tweaks that will appear in its already sold-out second batch of shipments. These include a rear pocket for a hydration pack, a slit for a stethoscope, an additional fan for added circulation, and a replaceable power bank. The company also plans to launch new color patterns and additional sizes.
Brooke Berlin, founder of Karoo Consulting, which focuses on business development for African travel companies, spends a lot of time in the air but isn’t sold on the BioVYZR. “I’ve been 1K with United for the past five years,” she says. “I will always wear a mask in public, but I have no interest in spending money — which could otherwise be used to support conservation and community efforts — on a protective suit, or playing into the fear of being around people or traveling by wearing something so extreme.”
Hillary France, founder of Brand Assembly, a business platform built to accelerate fashion and lifestyle brands, believes the fancy hazmat suit will have a moment and then fade quickly. “I don’t think this will replace the face mask as the garment we will put into the COVID-19 time capsule, but it is nice to be able to see someone’s smile,” she says.
The celebrity buy-in of stylish protective suits has others thinking that this hazmat suit is more than a fashion fad. Meredith Del Bello Zec, a mother of two young children who works as a New York-based buyer for Erica Wilson, a fashion boutique in Nantucket, Mass., says she’d invest in a BioVYZR.
“We’re in a moment where supermodels are traveling in full hazmat suits, so function and safety are, thankfully, the focus over all else — aesthetics included,” she explains. “That said, fashion will embrace this as it did with masks, and we will likely start to see versions of this type of gear evolve from designers at every level. I personally would look forward to a version that would be easy to wear when wrangling children on airplanes and through airports.” — Bloomberg