When personal protective equipment shortages dominated headlines at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several Duluth businesses stepped up to help.
Two of those businesses, Frost River Trading Co. and Duluth Pack, have made thousands of units of equipment for health care workers. One of them, Frost River, has ended its production of protective equipment because it met the needs of its local customers. Duluth Pack, however, is still producing the equipment, as it has a nationwide customer base demanding it.
Just like its canvas and leather bags, Duluth Pack's reusable hospital gowns are reaching customers nationwide.
So far, Duluth Pack has made around 30,000 gowns for hospitals, dental offices, assisted living facilities and other medical facilities — and decided it will continue producing gowns long term.
The gowns, CEO and President Tom Sega said, are 75% more cost-efficient than single-use gowns because they can be sanitized and reused up to 50 times.
The business began manufacturing hospital gowns when Sega explored ways the business could reopen. It closed its doors in the early months of the pandemic due to a state order mandating the closure of nonessential businesses.
"Our biggest goal was to get our people back to work, because they're no different than you and me. People have mortgages, rent, car payments, food to put on the table (and) families," Sega said. He added that they also wanted to supply equipment for frontline health care workers.
Production of personal protective equipment has proven to be a viable business venture for Duluth Pack. With orders steadily streaming in, the business has added production staff, invested in new machines and adjusted existing machines to better work with the lighter material used in its hospital gowns, Sega said.
"We can grow as a business in a market we never thought we would be in … (and) we can meet the need of (medical facilities)," he said.
Frost River, like Duluth Pack, would have been shut down for months if they didn't switch to manufacturing personal protective equipment.
Chris Benson, owner of Frost River, said they suspended production of the protective equipment in mid-July. Frost River had met the needs of St. Luke's hospital and Essentia Health — the reason behind the waxed-canvas bag company's switch to manufacturing face shields and masks. Frost River didn't receive any more requests beyond local ones.
To make its equipment, the company purchased 24 sewing machines. These machines are now sitting silent, as they can't handle heavy canvas and leather materials used in Frost River's bags, Benson said.
"They're speedy, little, zippy machines" that are great for making masks, he said. Frost River will hold onto the machines in case of an increased need for masks or in the event that the company branches into creating new, lighter-weight products.
They also hired 53 temporary, part-time employees to help with production. Most of the new staff were students needing summer jobs. Frost River was able to keep around a dozen of them on staff to help with production and retail sales, he said.
"They all really felt like they were making a difference — and they were," Benson said.
If more is eventually needed, Benson said Frost River would return to producing protective equipment. However, the business would likely rent out a new production space as the retail space, where they would make the equipment, had a grand reopening Thursday after "extensive" renovations.