Superior screenprinting shop, Challenge Center team up to supply protective masks
Screen Graphics has shifted from producing T-shirts to personal protective equipment with help from disabled employees.
A Superior screenprinting shop has joined forces with a local nonprofit employing disabled people to help meet the growing demand for protective face masks, as concerns about the spreading COVID-19 pandemic intensify.
"With everything going on in the world right now, we've shifted gears from our regular operations, and we're making masks for health facilities, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and places like that, as well as businesses in general, both local and outside the area," said Pat Messina, operations manager for Screen Graphics, a business located on Oakes Avenue.
Messina said his shop went through a couple of prototypes before hitting on a winning final design for its masks.
"We had to obviously get product, and then finding the elastic was a little bit of a challenge. But I think we've got plenty in-house now and more is being delivered. So, that should help us get through this," he said.
As of early Tuesday afternoon, Screen Graphics had received orders for more than 25,000 of its masks.
"Our sales team has been pounding the phones, so we can get these out to anyone who needs them," Messina said.
Orders have rolled in from grocers, trucking companies and health facilities alike. The cloth masks alone are not considered to provide adequate medical protection against the spread of COVID-19, but they can be paired with an N95 mask to extend the life of that device, which is currently in short supply. While not 100% effective when worn alone, some health professionals have suggested that cloth masks nevertheless could still be useful in slowing the transmission of the coronavirus from person to person.
"It's a very wide range of businesses that are looking for these," Messina said.
But he described the manufacturing process as "very labor-intensive." That's where Superior's Challenge Center lightens the load. His shop buys elastic for the masks in 2,500-yard bolts that need to be cut into 5-inch lengths, making two straps for each mask.
Screen Graphics has worked with the Challenge Center before.
"We wanted to give them an opportunity to keep their people busy," Messina said.
Mark Kroll, executive director of the Challenge Center, explained that the operation has been identified an essential business "because of the services we provide to people with disabilities" and it has therefore continued to do business, despite Gov. Tony Evers' order that nonessential employers temporarily close to slow the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Kroll said the work the Challenge Center provides offers its employees a valuable outlet, especially at a time when so many clients might otherwise be feeling a bit cooped up.
The Challenge Center operates several greenhouses, where it grows tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, lettuce, cilantro and other types of produce under the Bay Produce label. But it also operates a job shop under the Marathon Industries name. The Challenge Center is a subsidiary of the Superior Diocese's Catholic Charities Bureau.
Kroll said Marathon Industries welcomes the work from Screen Graphics.
"We're able to take on piecework very quickly. That's where a place like this really shines," he said.
Kroll said the center's disabled workforce appreciates the job, and the value of the work is not lost on many.
"Our people are highly aware of what's going on right now, and they know that what they're doing is helping out their community," he said.