With seemingly the only certainty in the world right now being that we are not going to be spending time outside the ways we normally would for some time, it has been a strange couple of weeks for the outdoor industry. Both financially and personally—as people who are accustomed to living active lives, it can also be very difficult to shelter in place and not be able to get out and help.
Isaac Howe, CEO and founder of Orucase, a brand that makes bike bags and travel cases, has been dealing with these anxieties along with those of any small business owner at the moment. Fortunately, he realized he was in a position to shift his manufacturing capacity to help address the shortage of medical supplies. Orucase’s products are chiefly sewn together using high tech sewing machines in production facilities in Tijuana and San Diego. Howe, who previously worked in sales for medical laboratories and has a lot of experience using masks, had a very clear grasp of how the same manufacturing process he uses for his bike accessories could be re-tooled to make face masks to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “We wanted to help” he said. “This is the only way we know how.”
“We wanted to help. This is the only way we know how.”— Orucase CEO Isaac Howe
“We have been working on [masks] for about two weeks because we haven’t had any sales for that long,” Howe says. For now, the company is using materials on hand to make the best masks they possibly can for anybody who wants one. They aren’t hospital-grade yet, but studies have shown that while less effective than certified personal protective equipment (PPE), cloth masks provide at least some protection. Having said that, wearing a homemade mask is in no way a substitute for certified equipment, and remaining at a distance from infected patients, and proper sanitization methods are absolutely necessary.
“When doctors are facing not having PPE, I think they should use whatever they can, and if it is homemade, it’s better than nothing,” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The masks are made with a cotton material that is washable and breathable and includes a three-layer, non-woven activated carbon filter element. The activated carbon filter material blocks particulate matter and other airborne contaminants.
“Even if these materials fall short of what is needed in a hospital, our country depends on people like delivery people and mail carriers,” explains Howe.
Orucase has made the masks available for sale on their website, and they’ve also made it easy for anybody who wants to donate the cost of a mask rather than purchase one for themselves.
“There’s a retirement home here who called me and told me they need 500 masks by Friday, or they are going to run out,” Howe says. “Our goal is 500,000 masks per week once our facility is in full swing. We have 20 people working the night shift right now making masks, we are bringing people back for a full staffed night shift.”
Howe said that right now, the rate-limiting step is the filter element.
“We are having a hell of a time trying to get FDA-compliant materials. We need a triple layer non-woven material called SMS (Spunbound Meltbound Spunbound). We are trying to accelerate building a supply chain, taking months of conversations and turning them into a ‘right now’ conversation.”
As a small business, Orucase was able to react quickly, since they remain flexible, able to retool more quickly than far larger operations. Plus, with fewer employees, small shops like Orucase often have people wearing a ton of hats at once already, so pivoting to something entirely new is a practiced art.
Retooling, however, is still in progress, but hasn’t been insurmountably difficult.
“We are trying to recommission our ultrasonic welder to make things faster, but the major retooling so far has been training the workers to make the products and putting new patterns into the cutters. We need to make sure we maintain an aseptic environment; [it’s not easy] because we have 100 individuals to train almost overnight. We still have a lot to learn and would love to hear from people who manufacture these things on a bigger scale.”
Financially, the business is not profiting from selling the masks. They are giving away 20 for every one they sell. “We don’t even know what the cost is on these yet. We have calculated some costs, but then a next-day air shipment of a ton of fabric doubles that cost and when that’s what we need to do that, that is what we do. We are looking out for each other here; it is our responsibility to keep our neighbors safe so that we can stay safe.”
Howe hopes this will result in increased sales in the long run, keeping them in business after an abrupt halt to the outdoor economy nobody saw coming. “We are going to make it through this and I do certainly hope that when people fly again they decide to go with [our travel cases].”
So far, the masks are being sent directly to healthcare workers as hospitals have purchasing agreements and complicated prior authorization processes in place.
The masks for sale on Orucase’s website sell for $20 with that purchase guaranteeing a donation of 20 masks. Healthcare workers or those in need of masks can reach out to Orucase directly.
Other outdoor brands have also stepped up voluntarily.
Eddie Bauer, for example, is able to partner with one of their Chinese manufacturers to produce thousands of the very much in demand N95 medical-grade masks.