By Shaylim Valderrama

CARACAS (Reuters) – After two decades of sewing jackets and school uniforms, Venezuelan clothing designers Stalina Svieykowsky and Nelson Jimenez this month revamped their operations to make the country’s most sought-after article of apparel: face masks.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro this month ordered the country’s citizens to wear face masks in public in response to the arrival of the novel coronavirus, leaving pharmacy shelves empty of masks and sending Venezuelans scrambling to find them.

Their small business is among dozens looking for opportunities amid the arrival of a deadly pandemic in a nation already suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse and a broad deterioration of health services.

“We’re always adapting. That’s what this country’s situation always leads us to do,” said Svieykowsky, 39, in the couple’s home in the city of San Antonio de los Altos that now serves as their workspace, 40 minutes outside the capital of Caracas.

“We’re selling them at low cost due to the need, the economic situation that we are all facing.”

Svieykowsky and Jimenez sell their masks for 30,000 bolivars, less than a dollar, and market them via social media – a practice that has become common during a nationwide quarantine that began this week in response to the pandemic.

Face masks at pharmacies sell for the equivalent of between $1.30 and $5.60. The couple each day makes 150 masks, which they designed by modeling them on their own faces.

The country does not have enough masks to meet local demand after the government required everyone to wear them, a measure enforced by police officers who drive around cities admonishing pedestrians not having their faces covered.

Maduro last weekend said the government had 8 million masks available to distribute and urged families to make their masks “with creativity.”

Venezuela, with a population of around 30 million, has reported 42 cases of coronavirus but no deaths.

Some doctors and nurses have called the face mask requirement unnecessary, saying the most important measure is hand washing. That is difficult for millions of Venezuelans who have limited access to running water due to a decline in public services.

The public health system has also worsened significantly over more than five years of recession, with many lacking basic supplies.

Maduro blames the situation on U.S. sanctions meant to force him from office by limiting the sale of the OPEC nation’s crude.

(Reporting by Shaylim Valderrama, editing by Vivian Sequera and Steve Orlofsky)