Late last month, an unusual vending machine appeared in New York City. Passersby stopped, took photos, and peered into the machine, which is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, near the Williamsburg Bridge.
It's the first PPE vending machine in New York, a natural move born out of the coronavirus crisis. Wedged between two glass windows of a vacant storefront at 156 Delancey Street, the machine offers KN95-type masks for $4 each.
“There didn’t seem to be a reliable source for this type of mask in the city,” says David Edelman, co-founder of the company behind the machine, RapidMask2Go. “People have mentioned paying $7 to $10 for a mask of equal or lesser quality, so I think the problem has been affordable, reliable access to face coverings”.
Edelman's company plans on rolling out 20 more such machines across the city in the weeks to come, in transit hubs, office towers and entertainment venues. Though the concept may be new to New York, PPE vending machines are in fact popping up in cities across the globe, from Berlin to Beijing.
For Edelman, the idea started when he tried to purchase some masks online that never arrived. He eventually imported a bulk package of masks, gave them to friends, family and neighbors, and then tried to sell the leftovers to local retailers, which didn't work. That led him to consider a vending machine. “I hadn’t seen it done anywhere, so we went for it,” he says.
No special permit was needed to install New York's first PPE vending machine – it’s located on private property, “accessible from a public thoroughfare,” says Edelman, though he notes that future vending locations may require city permits. “We took advantage of our real estate relationships to make use of a vacant corner retail space. Delancey Street has a great deal of foot traffic, even now,” he says.
While the New York City government wasn't involved, companies like Rapid Mask2Go say they are open to a collaboration. “We would welcome a partnership with the city on rolling out these machines,” says Edelman, “ones with options to obtain free masks as a way of getting a no-cost option out there.”
Face-mask vending machines have common been in Beijing for years, though they were more geared toward air pollution concerns until recently. China’s eastern city of Xuzhou launched a mask machine on 2 March, allowing locals to purchase two N95 masks every day with their ID cards.
On 2 April, 52 vending machines across Vienna’s subway stations were stocked with disposable 3M face masks. A mask machine recently launched in Kyiv, Ukraine, too, as well as in the Czech Republic and the Turkish city of Izmir.
Taipei launched its first PPE vending machine on 10 April, an effort of the local city government, the ministry of health and the central health insurance agency. To align with anti-hoarding efforts, the machines limit the quantity through each person’s health card, which must be swiped for each purchase.
In Berlin, a mask machine appeared on 27 April, the same day it became a requirement for residents to wear face coverings in public. The machine sits inside the Turmstrasse metro station in the Moabit district.
A new PPE vending machine at the Las Vegas airport. (Courtesy McCarran International Airport).
And airports are also catching on. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is the first airport in the US to offer PPE equipment via vending machines. On 13 May, the airport authority installed two machines owned and operated by the California company Prepango, selling hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and face masks, ranging from $4.25 to $14.50. It's apt timing, considering many airlines have now made it a necessary precaution for passengers to wear masks on flights.
“We want to make sure we have the things people feel confident to fly again,” says Joe Rajchel, a spokesperson for the airport. “Travel is changing, so are travel habits, hopefully this would help.”
Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.