The Slatest

These Companies Are Switching Gears to Help Address Coronavirus Shortages

An employee holds up rows of white masks in a cluttered factory. Hundreds of masks sit on the table before her.
A leather workshop that’s become a makeshift mask factory near Vigevano, Italy, on Thursday.
Miguel Medina/Getty Images

While people are starting to adjust to life amid the coronavirus shutdown, entire businesses are also retooling their operations. Democrats and many governors have called on President Donald Trump to use a wartime law to push American industries to provide badly needed equipment to help combat the pandemic. Some companies have already shifted entirely to pandemic operations—whether that means redirecting facilities to produce hand sanitizer in leftover fancy soap bottles or working to transform assembly plants into ventilator factories. These are the enterprises that are undergoing a pandemic overhaul.

Hand Sanitizer

LVMH, the French luxury goods conglomerate, has bid adieu to floral scents and glass bottles at its Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Guerlain perfume factories. Just 72 hours after the French government issued a call to industry to address a shortage of hand sanitizer on March 13, LVMH’s perfume facilities started churning out the essential product for health care works—in Dior-branded plastic bottles, naturally. LVMH is donating the hand sanitizer to France’s health authorities and hospitals and will continue production “for as long as necessary,” the company said in a statement. The L’Oréal Group and Coty have since announced similar plans.

New York state has also started manufacturing its own hand sanitizer. It’s being produced—in what critics have called “slave labor”—by incarcerated people, who usually earn 65 cents per hour, at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Washington County. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state will produce 100,000 gallons of the sanitizer—which he described as having hints of “lilac, hydrangea, tulips”—per week.

Craft distilleries around the U.S. have also started to manufacture the crucial but scarce liquid, with a recipe from the World Health Organization that calls for the same alcohol used to produce traditional spirits. Many are giving hand sanitizer away for free to customers and health care workers. The tricky part, the New York Times reported, is finding enough plastic containers—many distilleries have started asking people to bring their own bottles.

Face Masks and Gowns

Inditex, the parent company of fast-fashion giant Zara, has turned over its supply chains to produce medical equipment free of charge for the Spanish government, despite taking a 287 million euro hit to inventories. The company, which has already donated 10,000 surgical masks, expected to ship 300,000 more by the end of last week. Once it’s sourced the right materials, Inditex also intends to produce medical gowns.

Other fashion companies have followed suit, though their masks aren’t yet medical grade. Los Angeles Apparel is crafting masks from a sweatshirt-like fabric at its 150,000-square-foot factory, according to the New York Times, and plans to start sewing hospital gowns on Monday. The brand’s founder hopes to produce 300,000 masks and 50,000 gowns per week. Some masks are being donated to hospitals, while others are being sold on the company’s website.

Luxury fashion designers are also joining the mask production forces. Christian Siriano has asked his 10 seamstresses in New York to make masks for the city, which he’ll initially provide free of charge. High-end swimwear brand Karla Colletto is reopening its factory in Virginia to produce masks and gowns after it receives medical-grade materials from 3M this week. These will be sold through a hospital supply distributor.

Ventilators

Though it’s still unclear what exactly Tesla and/or SpaceX plans to do, founder Elon Musk tweeted on Wednesday that his companies would start producing ventilators “if there is a shortage,” but argued on Thursday that they can’t be produced instantly while he also questioned hospital shortages. (Musk has been extremely vocal about COVID-19 on Twitter.) So are ventilators in the works? Apparently, yes.

Other automakers in the U.S. are considering whether they will be able to use their plants to manufacture critical medical equipment, including ventilators. Ford and General Motors have been in discussions with the White House, which has the authority to require them to produce supplies under the Defense Production Act. Trump has now encouraged Ford, General Motors, and Tesla to produce ventilators and “other metal products,” but he’s yet to order them to do so. General Motors said on Friday that it’s collaborating with a small ventilator manufacturer to explore how it can help it increase production. The British government has also reached out to automakers, including Rolls-Royce and Jaguar, for manufacturing help.

On a smaller scale, Bloom Energy, a San Jose–based company that manufactures fuel cells, has started refurbishing California’s supply of older ventilators. And the Italian army has made 25 technicians available to a Bologna-based ventilator maker.