DULUTH — Chris Benson calls the fabric cutting machine at Frost River the “big gun.” He is aiming it squarely at the coronavirus.
“We don’t need to be making backpacks right now,” said Benson, owner of the Lincoln Park canvas bag maker. “It can wait and it will wait.”
This week the company shifted its industrial sewing operation to turn out thousands of face shields to supply local hospitals — 45,000 just in the next few days with the goals of doubling that as material becomes available. The disposable face coverings are meant to be worn over N95 masks, in short supply around the country, so they can be used longer.
Frost River will also be turning out PAPR hoods — used for a different type of medical-grade respirator — and “bunny suits” for total body coverage.
The shift to personal protective equipment hits especially close to home for Benson, whose wife is an anesthesiologist at St. Luke’s.
“She’s right there, the tip of the spear,” he said. “The PAPR hoods are very personal for me, and there is an extreme shortage.”
Whether the business branches out to other cities and continues beyond the immediate crisis remains to be seen. Raw materials have been an issue, and local hospitals are supplying some of them so far.
“If we have the demand we’d like to be able to send them to Chicago, to New Orleans, or where there are hospitals in need,” Benson said. “It’s amazing the phone calls we’re receiving, people looking for masks.”
Frost River now has about 20 employees working almost entirely on the medical supplies — existing inventories remain for sale online.
Benson has asked the region’s federal delegation to help protect the company from potential litigation since it is not a medically sterile facility.
“The concern of lawsuits ... must be addressed. Perhaps the Defense Production Act can be put into place to support our small business efforts,” he wrote in a letter. “Our U.S. manufacturing base has been called into action in generations past to help win a war, and our time is now.”