Coping With COVID-19: Switching From Making Linen Napkins To Making Face Masks

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This is a “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” kind of story. Until a few weeks ago, Gourmet Table Skirts & Linens in Houston was one of the largest suppliers to cruise lines and hotels. Its products graced the tables at weddings, bar mitzvahs all across America. That was before COVID-19 arrived and turned the travel and hotel industry upside down. Suddenly, the sewing machines inside the company’s 43,000 square foot factory stopped running and the space became eerily quiet as customer after customer cancelled their outstanding orders.

COVID-19 face mask from Gourmet Table Skirts
Image credit: Gourmet Table Skirts and Linens

“That’s when we knew we were in big trouble,” said Glenn Kammerman, president of the company, tells The Washington Post. “We had to get creative because the pipeline was drying up.” And here’s where the story takes a twist that will furrow the brows of the the anti-immigrant crowd. The company’s head designer is Hilda Garcia, who arrived as an undocumented immigrant from Honduras and was allowed to become a permanent resident under an amnesty program in the 80s. Today, most of the 85 workers at the company are immigrants.

Gourmet Table Skirts & Linens is one of a handful of US linen manufacturers that have survived the fierce competition from foreign companies in China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere that use extremely low wage workers to undercut companies like GTS&L. “I heard it all the time, ‘You can do it cheaper over there,’ ” Kammerman says. “But I wanted to control the quality and make a good product. It’s a question of pride.” So he invested in automation and a larger factory. He also makes sure to add a large “Made In USA” label to all his products. And Hilda Garcia has been one of the people who has helped the company thrive in the era of globalization.

Advice From An Immigrant

After their major customers started cancelling their orders, Kammerman, his son Howard, his daughter Sarah Gayle, and Hilda Garcia — who everyone calls “The Boss” —  started tossing around ideas for a breathable, washable, hygienic, medical face mask to meet the urgent needs of the health care industry.

Sewing face mask
Image redit: Carolyn Fortuna

If people were crafting masks in their living rooms, they thought, how much more could they do in their enormous factory with all its automated machines? Garcia took scraps of fabric home on the weekend to start on a prototype of a 100% cotton mask with elastic bands. (Note: as I write this, my wife is doing much the same thing in the next room with the cloth and elastic from an old bed sheet.) Howard Kammerman asked a friend who owns four urgent care facilities in the Houston area to review the design. By Tuesday, doctors wanted 500 for the first order.

“This won’t completely offset our losses,” he says,“but it’s a way to keep our workers employed and produce something that fills a gap and is desperately needed.” Keeping workers employed in a time of crisis. What a concept!

Production Is Beginning

The new masks are just now getting into production, but Hilda Garcia is already tweaking the design. She is thinking about including a pocket for physicians to add filters or double-plying and wonders whether the fabric used for cloth diapers might work better. The first masks will be made from the cloth normally used for linen napkins at high end venues.

Kammerman is already hearing from other interested health care providers. Could they make hospital gowns hospital gowns or operating room blankets? An ambulance company has sent him a text about supplying some of its cloth-based needs. “Who knows? Maybe there will be a Gourmet Medical Supply soon.” Kammerman says. “Things need to be made here. If this is needed, we are available.”

The New Normal

Sarah Gayle predicts the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way Americans live. Face masks could become the must-have accessory of the decade for not just hospitals but also day cares, offices, and everyday errands. Our relationship with contagions and germs is changing, she says, and American manufacturing needs to rise to the challenge. Latex gloves have become common in the past few years. Our children and grandchildren may consider a face mask to be a normal part of life.

“I think this is a good lesson for America to realize what the world’s about,” Kammerman says. “It’s a wake-up call for all of us.” Indeed it is, but the real question is whether anyone is listening? Certainly the national leaders in Washington are not, as they throw roadblocks in the way of state and local governments and spread disinformation faster than the virus can spread.

This is a story that focuses on what used to be known as America’s “can do” spirit. At a time when working together is vital to controlling the fallout for pandemics and an overheating planet, our leaders are hellbent on driving wedges between us for political gain. Rather than making America great again, they are making it a caricature like something out of Jimmy Breslin’s The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

Real leadership is in short supply in America today. Entrepreneurs like Glenn Kammerman are trying to help, but they can’t do it all themselves. They need government to set the broad policy guidelines that will allow them to thrive. Good luck with that from the current administration running things in Washington. who are focused on one thing and one thing only — getting re-elected.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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