TEXAS – This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.
Lucas Rensko was making money through a popular handyman-for-hire app called TaskRabbit, doing odd jobs and delivering groceries, when he picked up a task that led him to a leaky-roofed warehouse on a tattered road in northwest San Antonio.
Inside, a man named Jaime Rivera had set up long tables where five or six other “Taskers” earning about $20 an hour were ripping Chinese masks out of plastic bags and stuffing them into new ones that were identical but for one potentially deadly difference. The old packages were labeled in all caps “MEDICAL USE PROHIBITED,” meaning not to be used by doctors and nurses who need the strongest protection from tiny particles carrying the novel coronavirus. The new bags, intended to make their way to Texas hospitals, simply omitted that warning.
This seemingly small deception highlights a huge problem for medical workers whose best defense against a virus that ravages the body with horrifying complexity is a simple, but trustworthy, mask. That trust has eroded as Chinese-made masks claiming, sometimes falsely, to be 95% effective at filtering virus-laden particles made their way into hospitals and now local convenience stores. You might have bought them: KN95s.
Texas officials have tried to block ineffective masks from making their way to hospitals with screenings and by rejecting anything labeled as nonmedical, yet at the same time, the mysterious brokers sourcing millions of masks were working hard to evade those safeguards. The operation Rensko witnessed had the potential to push faulty masks into the Texas supply chain just as Gov. Greg Abbott eased lockdown restrictions and COVID-19 infections began to soar.
“He kind of takes us on this tour of his facility, which is essentially a shelled-out warehouse,” Rensko, 36, told me over the phone, detailing how Rivera described the work at the warehouse. “He was saying they were designated for personal or residential use, not for medical. And so what he was doing was basically putting them into other packaging where the city of San Antonio and the state of Texas are able to look at them and then sell them for medical purposes.”
Rensko knew something wasn’t quite right and walked away from the TaskRabbit gig. He told his wife, who told a friend, who told another friend, who told me.
Over weeks of reporting, I’d learn that Rensko had scratched the surface of a larger scheme involving a Silicon Valley investor named Brennan Mulligan to sell what Texas health officials later flagged as “fraudulent” masks to the agency directing protective equipment to hospitals. Mulligan had enlisted Rivera, who was desperate for money after the pandemic had sapped his primary source of income, building furniture and manual labor via TaskRabbit. As countless others have, the two had a chance to make money off of the country’s public health nightmare.
When I caught up with Mulligan, he emphasized that he didn’t break any U.S. laws in his mask business. Rivera would acknowledge it was a gray area that had caught the attention of federal investigators. Both would defend their actions as simply cutting through onerous red tape put up by the Chinese and U.S. governments to get masks to those desperate for them.
The absurdity, greed and incompetence surrounding the distribution of coronavirus-era masks has taken me to Chicago, California and, now, Texas. The federal government’s efforts to get protective equipment out quickly to essential workers had failed spectacularly, and the supply chain that normally moves products from producers to vendors to end users had almost completely broken down. Counterfeit masks were flooding the market, and prices for even unreliable masks had skyrocketed.
I did what due diligence I could from my Washington, D.C., apartment before buying a plane ticket. I researched Rivera and saw on Facebook that he was a father of six who danced in his driveway and camped on the beach with the kids.
But his Facebook page also told part of the supply-chain story. Rivera had posted several photos in late April of beaten-up boxes bursting at the seams with masks labeled as KN95s, similar to the American-made N95 masks produced by 3M and other manufacturers. But the Chinese masks often don’t pass muster with U.S. regulators, who screen for effectiveness in blocking small particles and certify masks that meet their standards.