Northeastern Minnesota manufacturers that took up personal protective equipment creation in lieu of making their own products will soon be able to return to manufacturing their original products thanks to a new executive order from Gov. Tim Walz.
Industrial, manufacturing and office-based businesses can reopen starting Monday — only if they practice social distancing, work from home whenever possible and test employees' health daily.
The changes will bring back an estimated 80,000-100,000 workers to approximately 20,000 Minnesota businesses.
Numerous area businesses, like Duluth Pack, Loll Designs and Wintergreen Northern Wear, entered the medical supply market to help hospitals amid the coronavirus pandemic. One of these businesses, Duluth's Frost River Trading Co., won't give up PPE creation even with the new executive order, and will only make bags when necessary.
Owner Chris Benson said his business isn't going to cease making reusable face masks, face shields, powered air-purifying respirator hoods or full-body suits. But they will slowly start to ease back into bag production, as people continue ordering online.
Frost River has supplied Essentia and St. Luke's with thousands of PPE items since its early-April shift away from waxed-canvas bag creation. Benson's wife, an anesthesiologist at St. Luke's, inspired him to pivot his business.
Even if the hospitals become fully stocked, they would instead supply nursing homes, first responders and others.
"There's such a lack of PPE in the community and (in) the country that, from a moral standpoint, I don't feel right taking my talented sewers who now are trained ... to make PPE and saying, 'well let's build a pack again," Benson said.
Frost River recently expanded its PPE creation. It hired 20 part-time sewers to help with PPE creation, transformed its sales floor into production space and bought 12 new sewing machines specifically for making medical supplies.
Within a few weeks, Benson estimates that Frost River will be making 5,000-6,000 masks daily.
"It's gonna be a long time for all of us," he said. "We just all have to ... continue to make our decisions and make a difference (which) is what we're after."