Vice President Mike Pence announced Tuesday that Apple CEO Tim Cook had promised the iPhone maker would donate 9 million medical masks to combat the dire medical equipment shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“At this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said at a press conference.
The announcement came as reports poured in across the country of nurses and medical personnel pleading for more personal protective equipment, including masks, as they struggle to deal with a surge in coronavirus cases. The masks protect healthcare workers from exposure to the highly contagious COVID-19, which has infected more than 50,000 people in the United States as of Tuesday, killed nearly 700, and threatens to overwhelm the nation’s healthcare system.
That major tech giants in Silicon Valley would have millions of such masks stockpiled and available in “their store houses” came as a surprise to some, but experts say it makes sense for companies based in California, which is no stranger to natural disasters.
Apple’s offering is the largest in a series of donations from tech companies, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donating 720,000 masks and Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk donating 250,000.
“Facebook donated our emergency reserve of 720,000 masks that we had bought in case the wildfires continued. Health workers urgently need more protective gear. We're also working on sourcing millions of more to donate,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook.
Other tech companies likely stockpiled the masks in case of wide-ranging disasters just as Facebook did, an employment law expert told The Daily Beast. The wildfires that battered Northern California in 2018 also mired the San Francisco Bay Area in smoke. Air quality deteriorated, and, as with COVID-19, public health officials advised residents to stay inside.
“Large employers want to be prepared when something like air quality goes beyond the level they’d be required to give the masks,” said Mike Droke, an employment lawyer expert with the firm Dorsey & Whitney. “It’s a matter of having something you know you might need and obtaining enough of it to be ready for an emergency.”
Though tech companies are famous for cushy office amenities (some of which have been disrupted by COVID-19), a store of emergency supplies is likely something distributed to fulfill a legal obligation. California labor law requires employers to provide respirators to employees should air quality fall below a certain threshold. It’s also unlikely the companies would donate masks meant for their factories, Droke said, as manufacturing workers would take first priority for that protective equipment.
“You don’t stockpile something like that as a perk. You obtain it in advance,” Droke said. “When it becomes necessary, that’s overnight. It’s part of your general duty as an employer to protect employees at work.”
There are likely more masks stockpiled elsewhere in Silicon Valley. Ebay, Lyft, and Airbnb said in 2018 that they were distributing masks to any employee who requested one.
Apple, Ebay, Lyft, Airbnb, and Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about where the masks came from.