Frost River Trading Co. has shifted its business from waxed-canvas bag manufacturing to making personal protective equipment for local health care workers.

The Duluth business is preparing 45,000 face shields that it will give to St. Luke's and Essentia Health — and has plans to create 45,000 more. Owner Chris Benson said they made the transition because he believed they had a duty help health care staff who work on the front lines of the pandemic.

"In times like this ... you roll up your sleeves and you figure it out," Benson said.

With plans to make other types of PPE, he said they started with face shields because Frost River has the equipment to cut large amounts of plastic, all people in hospitals can use them for protection and the shields save time for hospital staff who move among patients.

Jason Schooler, Frost River’s sewing system supervisor, assembles a face mask Monday. (Steve Kuchera /
Jason Schooler, Frost River’s sewing system supervisor, assembles a face mask Monday. (Steve Kuchera /

They're in the final stages of making powered air-purifying respirator hoods, which they plan to roll out next. Then they'll branch into "bunny suits" — suits that cover the entire body — and reusable face masks.

Family motivated Benson to start PPE production. His wife is an anesthesiologist at St. Luke's, a role that puts her at the front lines of the pandemic as she intubates people with the virus who need ventilators.

"If we're sending (health care workers) into battle without the appropriate equipment, they'll do it. But they're improvising. And they shouldn't have to improvise on some of these key, critical things," he said.

Benson called Frost River a hub for PPE creation, as it's partnering with numerous other local businesses on production.

A 48-foot-long cutting table in Frost River's basement is being used for cutting plastic; SCS Interior is also helping cut plastic. While Cirrus Aircraft is helping by assembling some face shields and Aerostich has helped with broken machinery.

They brought back staff to make PPE, as Frost River closed due to it being declared a nonessential business during the COVID-19 outbreak by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Staff required training on the new products and are now working four 10-hour shifts to limit the number of times they travel outside of their homes, he said.

Although Benson wishes he could produce PPE for other industries and facilities, they haven't determined a reliable model for shipping and he has concerns about liability.

"We went into this with a clear mission that was to take care of the people who are at the tip of the spear that can't go down. They cannot pick up this disease," he said.