Thursday was supposed to be opening day for major-league baseball.
But with sports canceled to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Easton, Pa.-area factory that makes uniforms for the Phillies, Yankees, and their rivals had switched production as of Thursday to make 10,000 protective medical masks and gowns a day, which it plans to donate to hospitals.
The factory, owned by online pro and college sports gear maker Fanatics, underwent a thorough cleaning and the imposition of anti-contagion rules in the last week. It reopened Thursday to 100 sewing machine operators and stitchers, who plan to deliver their first 10,000 masks to St. Luke’s Hospital in nearby Bethlehem. (The plant normally employs 400 people. Office and sales workers are operating from home.)
“St. Luke’s asked us for 10,000 masks” amid a nationwide shortage, said Michael Rubin, based in West Conshohocken, who owns Fanatics and is a minority owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Rubin has also been a leader in advocating for Meek Mill — the rapper imprisoned for probation violations until the state Supreme Court set him free.
The first 100 masks were issued Thursday to the factory workers, who were told to observe work-apart and washing rules, and to check in with on-site medical staff to avoid spreading the virus.
Rubin said the masks are not surgical grade but are suitable for other medical uses and are meant to be used once.
He said future masks and gowns will be shipped to other Pennsylvania hospitals in coordination with the state’s Emergency Management Agency. Once they have met Pennsylvania’s needs, he hopes to supply medical centers in neighboring New Jersey, and in New York, where intensive-care units are being hard-hit.
“Normally, this is our busiest time of year making uniforms, but we were forced to shut down last Thursday when the state issued its order” for most employers to close, Rubin said. Major-league baseball suspended its season amid spring training on March 12.
News reports of the national medical-gear shortage left Rubin wondering how to help: “I woke up in the middle of Wednesday night [last week] and I said, ‘Wait a second, we own this manufacturing facility, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could turn it to mask manufacturing?’”
He emailed Joe Bozich, who runs Fanatics’ branding unit, and Chuck Strom, head of Fanatics’ baseball business. “Their initial response was, ‘We’d love to help, let’s see if it’s feasible.’”
Even as they were checking the specs with industry contacts, an employee at St. Luke’s phoned Strom to beg for masks. When Strom said he was working on it, hospital staff passed word to their contacts in the state emergency agency.
On Saturday, Gov. Tom Wolf called Rubin, and asked whether the plant could do more. “He told me, ‘This is really important,'” Rubin said.
Rubin said he needed Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s approval to repurpose fabric that had been purchased for uniforms. Manfred “was like, 100%, ‘How fast can we get started?,'” Rubin recalled. "Rob said to me, ‘Michael, let’s do this as quickly as possible. Today, I’m not worried about baseball jerseys. I want to help keep the heroes on the front lines safe.’”
They’re giving them away. Rubin figures the cost at about $3 for either a mask or a gown. “If we do a million [items], it will cost us $3 million, though the retail value would be higher.”
He said Wolf offered to find money to pay the company. But Rubin said he and Manfred decided to split the cost as a contribution to the fight.
Rubin has expanded Fanatics and other online retail businesses since selling his previous company, GSI Commerce, to eBay for $2.4 billion in 2011.
Fanatics bought the plant, known as the Majestic factory, in Palmer Township adjoining Easton, from VF Corp.'s Licensed Sports Group in 2017.
Rubin said he hopes to get back to making pro uniforms later this spring. “We still hope baseball will launch by June,” he said.
It is one of the larger area efforts among many to support hospitals caught unprepared for the scale of the epidemic.
The Sino-American Pharmaceutical Professionals Association - Greater Philadelphia chapter, which claims hundreds of members working at local drug companies, schools, and start-ups, is expecting “4,000 masks and 50 protective gowns from China” next week and will give them to Philadelphia hospitals, said Jing Yang, Lead for the Pan Asian Network in People and Business Resource Group at Bristol Myers Squibb, and the chapter president.
She said the gift was underwritten by Zhenhua Wu, founder and president of Exegenesis Bio, Lansdale, and a former chapter president, and that the group is raising funds for more aid. “All the Asian American communities I know are going out of the way to chip in,” using ties in both countries, Yang said.
Other Pennsylvania factories retooling to sell anti-coronavirus gear as retail outlets and other familiar markets for their products shut down include distillers, which are using ethanol alcohol to make hand sanitizer, as is Crazy Aaron’s Puttywood, on Main Street in Norristown.
That company, owned by Aaron Muderick, hopes to produce 6,000 gallons of “FDA-approved hand sanitizer” by the end of this month, and to boost that total to 10,000 gallons a week in April, according to Steve Jurash, president of the Manufacturing Alliance of Philadelphia, who has been encouraging members to make the switch.
Jurash added that pharmaceutical packaging designers and makers in the Philadelphia area are also gearing up to produce anti-coronavirus protective gear.
Merck, the New Jersey-based drug manufacturing giant that employs more than 10,000 at its research and production facilities in central Montgomery County, has promised to deliver half a million hospital-grade face masks.