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Mon 20 Jul 2020 10:16 AM

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Video: Hazmat suits for air passengers are here

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, 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, travellers 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 U.S. Virgin Islands to see her parents. “I was especially concerned about our 4-year-old not being able to keep a mask on for a flight,” she says.

After learning about BioVYZR through an email 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 health care 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 1F to 2F 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 a 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.)

(Source: Bloomberg QuickTake News YouTube channel)