Safety First

How a Washington Ice Cream Producer Joined the State’s Mask-Making Machine

Locals are stepping up to mitigate the shortage of PPE.

By Benjamin Cassidy April 1, 2020

Image: Jane Sherman

Washington ice cream maker Lopez Island Creamery isn’t hard up like many businesses around the region right now. On your next trip to the grocery store, you might see people shoveling its handmade pints into carts and bags, restocking for more nights of Netflix binging. Call it our permanent break-up state (we hardly knew ye, outside world).

Still, the creamery has seen its overall revenue drop significantly, per owner Alex Thieman, due in large part to the ban on in-house dining at Seattle restaurants. Even though takeout and delivery services abound, ice cream doesn’t travel so well. So, with fewer orders to fill, the Anacortes operation’s nine or so workers sought ways to help the surrounding community during the coronavirus crisis. Initially, they considered using a pasteurizer to make soup, but local food banks told them they were all set. Then they turned to something completely out of their realm: sewing masks.

Around Washington and the U.S., mask-making efforts have ramped up as personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages have threatened health workers’ ability to guard their faces from airborne droplets of the novel coronavirus. In mid-March, Providence announced a “100 Million Mask Challenge” that called on people to donate surgical masks. Along with partner Kaas Tailored, Nordstrom’s army of tailors has largely answered Providence’s call to arms, devoting workers to create and sanitize more than 100,000 masks. Other major retailers with Seattle-area roots, like Outdoor Research and Eddie Bauer, are mobilizing their substantial workforces to produce more for local hospitals. Crafters and Seattle Opera costume shop workers are drawing from their creative expertise to do the same. And the region’s techies have procured mass quantities of protective gear and spawned a 3D printing operation.

They've helped fill mouths before, but now Lopez Island Creamery workers are aiding the effort to cover them.

Lopez Island Creamery doesn’t belong to any of those groups. It couldn't provide a huge work force, sewing skills, or new technology to mitigate the problem. Instead, it could offer a sanitary work space (the kitchen) and tenacity, a quality that helped a tiny island treasure in the San Juans grow into a company that makes thousands of pints of ice cream per day, now distributed in three states. Given that history, Thieman assumed mass-producing some masks wouldn't be much of an issue when they began the project last week. “We thought, ‘Oh, well, we’ll be doing thousands of these no problem.'”

Not quite. The first day was spent watching YouTube videos, consulting with nurses, and following the lead of staffer Alicia Vertefeuille, who had been crafting a quilt for her mother, making her the company's de facto seamstress extraordinaire. Sourcing was a challenge too. Though fabric was easy enough to find—Jo-Ann donated about half of it—elastic bands were all out of stock. The group settled for some similar “stretch loop” they found on Uline. “It’s kind of like something you’d find if you were wrapping a Christmas present,” says Thieman.

As of Wednesday morning, the team had finished just 100 tightly woven masks. The new plan is to make around 700, distributing them to hospitals in their immediate surrounds. “The need is definitely there,” Thieman says. Especially since, as more medical workers receive masks, the greater populace can (and probably should) consider buying them again.

That trend could lead to some funny facial wear. As Thieman says of their masks destined for local medical institutions, “They’re functional, maybe not fashionable.”

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