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SMBs to the rescue: Businesses retool to respond to COVID-19 pandemic

Linda Salinas (left in lab coat), OU Medicine epidemiologist, and Kris Gose, OU Medical Center president, visit Mathis Brothers’ mattress factory, which has been retooled to sew cloth face masks. Salinas, Gose and other OU Medicine and OU Health Sciences Center leaders received bags of donated masks to use in clinical and hospital areas. (Courtesy photo / OU Medicine)

Linda Salinas (left in lab coat), OU Medicine epidemiologist, and Kris Gose, OU Medical Center president, visit Mathis Brothers’ mattress factory, which has been retooled to sew cloth face masks. Salinas, Gose and other OU Medicine and OU Health Sciences Center leaders received bags of donated masks to use in clinical and hospital areas. (Courtesy photo / OU Medicine)

 

Across America, small and midsized businesses have been steering their efforts toward helping the nation respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In normal times, employees of Prairie Wolf Spirits in Guthrie, Oklahoma, work from day to day turning out bottles of the micro-distillery’s Prairie Dark coffee liqueur and other signature spirits that customers have been known to compare favorably to more expensive liquors produced by much larger competitors.

These are not normal times.

In response to the coronavirus crisis, a decision was made recently to switch Prairie Wolf’s production over to hand sanitizer. Sales Manager Jeffrey Cole said the government started sending out notices of urgent needs for sanitizer to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Rules were changed to make it fairly easy to make a switch, and Cole said it just seemed like the right thing to do considering what’s been happening in Oklahoma and around the world.

“So, our facility has been completely retooled,” he said.

Alcoholic beverage makers across the country have also stepped up.

The Maryland Distillers Guild said in April that its members have produced more than 50,000 gallons of sanitizer to help combat the COVID-19 virus.

Barton Brands of Maryland, a distilled spirits bottling plant, is giving away hand sanitizer and high proof alcohol to first responders and others in essential industries. (Submitted photo)

Barton Brands of Maryland, a distilled spirits bottling plant, is giving away hand sanitizer and high proof alcohol to first responders and others in essential industries. (Submitted photo)

At least 17 Maryland distillers, with the help of some Maryland breweries and wineries, jumped into action in mid-March after learning of a severe shortage of sanitizer to begin the transition to creating hand sanitizer, in addition to making craft spirit.

Although it remains unclear just how long distillers will be authorized to manufacture sanitizer under federal rules, many of them have committed to continuing with their production for at least a few more months. Sagamore Spirits in Baltimore has produced more than 12,000 gallons and delivered close to 1,500 gallons weekly to The Johns Hopkins Hospital. McClintock Distilling, in Frederick, has been able to produce almost 30,000 gallons of sanitizer, even renting out another building to increase production.

While in most cases selling sanitizer has allowed these distilleries to keep the lights on, they have also managed to donate more than 500 gallons of sanitizer to those in need.

Another area of need that businesses can help with is 3-D printing.

3D printing lets businesses meet needs

“If you have a 3-D printer right now you’re probably expected to be producing something,” said Brian Stevens, an associate at SERA Architects in Portland, Oregon. “There are a lot of resources out there, and I think people are learning as they go with this.”

Stevens and co-worker Becky Epstein are spearheading an effort by SERA employees to use the firm’s lone printer to manufacture protective face shields for first responders and other health care professionals.

“We use it for a lot of models that are tougher to build by hand,” Stevens said. “It’s a normal tool in the model shop.”

However, he added, anything that can be modeled on a computer can also be printed. And a face shield is fairly simple, particularly because the design is already available online. Using readily available printing templates for the adjustable plastic headband, Stevens printed several prototypes before settling on a final design that includes a protective visor. For the transparent face shield the team is using film originally intended for overhead projector use.

SERA Architects is using a 3-D printer to produce face shields for donation to local health care organizations. (Courtesy of Brian Stevens)

SERA Architects is using a 3-D printer to produce face shields for donation to local health care organizations. (Courtesy of Brian Stevens)

“The elastic is hard to come by, and clear plastics are getting snatched up,” he said. “You have to go where the available materials are.”

A single printer running full time in Stevens’ dining room produces roughly eight complete face shield units per day.

“Anything that can be thought of and printed, it’s happening,” Stevens said. “It’s really up to people’s imagination how it happens.”

Patients, medical professionals need masks

One other area of need that businesses have pivoted toward is personal protective equipment.

Oklahoma City-based furniture retailer Mathis Brothers has begun producing cloth face masks in its mattress factory.

Mathis Brothers spokesman Rit Mathis said that when the Mathis family became aware of the shortage of masks for health care providers, they knew they had an opportunity to make a difference.

“We immediately went to work retooling our mattress factory,” Mathis said. “Working with the nurses at OU Medical Center, we developed a mask that can be utilized in a number of applications to better protect our front-line doctors and nurses.”

Within three days, Mathis Brothers was able to begin producing more than 1,000 masks a day.

“We are going to continue to ramp up our efforts to give away as many of these masks as possible to our local health care system,” Mathis said.

OU Medicine and the OU Health Sciences Center said they would give the donated masks to visitors and patients so that direct-care providers can continue using existing supplies of face masks. Doctors, nurses and other health care professionals will also wear the new face masks over their N95 masks for additional protection.

The use of personal protective equipment like face masks is critical during the pandemic because virus droplets remain airborne after an infected person coughs or sneezes. As the medical response to the pandemic continues, supplies of PPE will decline, making community donations all the more important.

“We anticipate giving the masks donated by Mathis Brothers first to OU Medicine visitors and patients, whether they are at one of our clinics for a doctor’s appointment or have been admitted to the hospital,” said Linda Salinas, epidemiologist for OU Medical Center. “This will provide them with another layer of protection. Our health care providers can also wear the masks over their N95 masks, which provides additional safety and helps to extend the life of the N95 masks. Because our response to the pandemic is growing and changing, we are grateful to have the extra masks to use as the situation requires.”

Company wants to ‘do the right thing’

Another company, Century Martial Arts in Midwest City, Oklahoma, shifted some of its production toward masks for health professionals.

Normally, the company’s 650,000-square-foot facility hums along at a brisk pace from day to day with 250 full-time employees turning out everything from punching bags to workout mats and even uniforms and coveted belts worn by students of jiujitsu, taekwondo and other martial arts styles. Michael Dillard, vice president of special projects, counts karate schools, gyms, sporting goods stores and other businesses in all 50 states and in 35 countries among the company’s tens of thousands of customers.

An employee at Century Martial Arts works on a mask eventually to be worn in a hospital or other health care settings by a medical professional. (Courtesy of Century Martial Arts)

An employee at Century Martial Arts works on a mask eventually to be worn in a hospital or other health care settings by a medical professional. (Courtesy of Century Martial Arts)

While the coronavirus pandemic has knocked many businesses out at least temporarily, Century Martial Arts has managed to retain all of its employees. Most remain in their normal roles, wearing protective masks and practicing social distancing as they continue to produce and ship products. Others, however, have pivoted to new roles. Rather than producing karate belts or other apparel, they’re instead turning out the hospital-grade masks.

Dillard said that because the company may be tuned in a little better than most to things as they develop in Asia, it started looking ahead several months ago to the possibility that the then-emerging pandemic might force changes in operations. Workers beginning in January started crafting patterns for masks on the chance of launching a new line of production.

“We also scooped up materials quickly, because that’s been the main constraint (in sustaining production),” Dillard said.

By the end of February, it became obvious that needs for high-quality masks had risen dramatically in the United States and around the world, so Dillard said efforts were stepped up to begin production of masks on a fairly large scale. That happened despite numbers not being there to support a profit on the new line, at least in the short term. He said workers patterned a multiple-layer mask with an interior pocket for a filter to make it as effective as an N95 mask that might typically be worn in health care settings.

Dillard said the company wanted to “do the right thing” not only in keeping health care workers safe during the pandemic but also in keeping workers employed. He noted that sales of some items, like team uniforms, have been off by as much as 75%. Notably, though, sales of home workout equipment have risen.

“Our business, quite literally, has turned upside down,” he said. “Hopefully it will come back up as gyms reopen.”

The pandemic, however, has changed the world in such basic ways that businesses may be more encouraged to evolve.

“I think every company is asking themselves what things will look like six months from now,” Dillard said.

 

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