Business owners in the Hudson Valley shift to production of personal protective equipment

Homemade face masks. [photo from Wicked Finch Farms]

By Deanna Albohn

At least 50 local businesses in the Hudson Valley have shifted gears to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals and local residents, according to the Hudson Valley Business Owners Facebook page and other action groups in the Hudson Valley. 

After non essential businesses were shut down on March 22 due to the pandemic, owners and employees were left with a lot of free time and felt the need to help. As stores closed and their normal productions came to a halt, many businesses turned to manufacturing face masks.  

“We knew that we could change our operation and start making masks for caregivers in need,” Kelly Lyngaard, the founder and CEO of Unshattered, an organization that gives women job skills training and employment to stop the cycle of drug relapse, said. 

The women of Unshattered normally make and sell handbags out of upcycled materials, but purse production is on hold. They began producing face masks on March 21 and have donated over 3,700 masks so far. 

On Wed. April 15, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order requiring anyone who is unable to maintain a safe social distance in public to wear a mask or face covering over their mouth and nose to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Homemade face masks are not certified to protect against COVID-19, but can be used to extend the life of N95 masks and work as a buffer between the virus for those who do not have access to masks. 

Unshattered formed The Social Distance Sewing Circle on March 25, a project dedicated to making and donating face masks. They have sent masks to 112 locations as of April 22 including Vassar Brothers Medical Center, Nyack Hospital and Montefiore Hospital. They also have a secure donation bin outside their office in Hopewell Junction.

The nonprofit is providing all fabric, elastic and other materials to employees. For people making masks at home, they suggest a one dollar donation with masks that are dropped off so they can continue to employ and pay the women they serve.

N95 surgical masks typically cost around 58 cents each, but prices surged to over seven dollars in early March due to increased demand. Businesses that are selling masks are listing them on average of 20 dollars. A standard mask with a filter is 19 dollars on Amazon

Some healthcare professionals without access to masks have had to reuse them for up to a week. Homemade fabric masks can be washed and reused, and the masks made by Unshattered have a pocket inside for a filter, such as paper towels, that can be removed and replaced.

“We have received more than 1,200 of these masks from people and groups across the Mid-Hudson Valley and have made them available to our employees, who are very grateful for them,” Ann Armater, Executive Director of the Foundation for Vassar Brothers Medical Center, said.

The increasing difficulty of obtaining PPE and related equipment has sparked some manufacturers and fashion brands to shift their production. Inspired by colleagues and other designers, Mariana Leung-Weinstein, co-owner of Wicked Finch Farms in Pawling, used her background in fashion and extra fabric she had laying around to make face masks.

“I belong to the New York Handmade Collective, which is a lot of different makers of New York and I saw that they were gathering together to do a collective effort to answer calls for help from different facilities,” Leung-Weinstein said. “Collectively we’ve made over 1,000 [masks].” 

On top of sewing face masks, Leung-Weinstein is still fulfilling online orders and shipments as well as contactless pop-up shops. Different members of the Handmade Collective are assigned to different facilities to send their masks. She sends hers to Ontario ARC in Stanley, Ontario.  

“The masks are going to different friends and relatives that are also medical professionals and healthcare professionals,” Leung-Weinstein said. “I’ve served a lot of vulnerable communities and elderly people as well.” 

Within the past three weeks, they have shipped 1,000+ masks to hospitals, shelters and assisted living facilities and are continuing to make more Susan Ng, founder and owner of Naturally Susan’s, said. Ng is leading the team of NY Handmade Collective artisans in making fabric masks. 

It takes around 15-25 minutes to make one mask, both Lyngaard and Leung-Weinstein said. For those who do not have access to face masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends cloth face coverings such as scarves or bandanas in public areas where it is difficult to maintain social distancing, such as the grocery store. 

The right size mask can be difficult to come by these days. “I can’t sew so instead I have been making, with my laser cutter, something called Ear Savers,” Wade Trefethen of I Do Event Decals, said. “It’s a complementary tool for masks worn all day.”  

Ear Savers take pressure and friction off the ears, making all masks more comfortable and reduce the risk of damage to the ears and face, according to the Glowforge 3D laser printer website. It is worn behind the head and the elastic straps of a mask wrap around it. 

“I have made over 1200 and have been shipping them all out for free to hospitals all over NYC and Los Angeles,” Trefethen said. 

On March 24 the New York University Grossman School of Medicine became the first in the nation to advance spring graduates to early residencies to assist with pandemic assistance in New York. Days later on April 4, Gov. Cuomo signed an executive order clearing medical students to work as doctors. The same has not been true for nurses in certain areas. 

“The amount of NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) testing sites have decreased,” Erielle DeJeus, a senior nursing student at Fairfield University, said. “Less testing sites make it inconvenient to find a place to take it. Plus there’s less time so you have less questions to prove that you are competent [to practice.]” 

Several weeks ago, Maggie Mitchell heard about a hospital in Washington state employing seamstresses to sew face masks. 

“I immediately decided to switch operations over to mask making, as social distancing meant I couldn’t do fittings or client meetings,” Mitchell, a seamstress and owner of Pearl Street Alterations in Kingston, said. “I looked around at a few patterns and eventually settled on my own version of the mask developed by Gather Here, a sewing supply store in Cambridge, MA. Their online tutorial is foolproof.”

She has made about 80 masks so far and has donated them to Kingston Hospital. She has also distributed masks to community members upon request in exchange for a donation to The Table at Woodstock, a non profit community kitchen, or People’s Place Kingston, a food pantry, thrift store and community kitchen.

While social distancing, Mitchell is in the process of adjusting her business practices. She is still doing basic alterations that do not require in person fittings.

Hudson Valley Skin Care has suspended their normal production of organic hair and skin products to make hand sanitizer for the community. 

“We have donated about 8000 two ounce bottles to our customers and anyone in the community can come by and get one,” Cathy Arpino, co-owner of Hudson Valley Skin Care, said. “We’ve also sent to the Hudson Valley Red Cross, Dutchess Outreach, Cardinal Hayes Home for Children, Vassar Brothers Hospital, Hyde Park Volunteer Fire Department and Arlington Free Lunch among others.” 

Her husband, Glen Arpino, owns Dermasave Labs, Inc., a pharmacy in Pleasant Valley. They started making hand sanitizer for his customers, and when word got out, they received phone calls from organizations all over the county. 

She is an inactive nurse but is currently in the process of reactivating with the state, because they are trying to bring retired nurses back in, Arpino said. 

Though they cannot produce the much needed N95 masks, the army of volunteers will continue to make PPE to help protect healthcare workers. The state Department of Health now has procurement forms on its website for businesses interested in making items including masks, gloves and gowns.

About Deanna Albohn 5 Articles
I am a senior at Stony Brook University double majoring in journalism and psychology. I am the music editor at The Press, the campus culture magazine. I enjoy writing and reading about music and entertainment and hope to join that field one day.