By Monday, however, McCormick and some of his people were back at work. They had effected a dramatic turnaround, designing and producing medical gowns and masks with the same type of materials and techniques he had used to make banners and graphic displays. Now the Elkridge-based firm can hardly keep up with the nation’s frantic demand.
“Hope and purpose — that’s what we’ve got,” McCormick, of Pasadena, said. “We have something do — we’re not sitting here waiting for other people to act. We get to act. But it’s tough, man.”
McCormick, 47, who studied watercolor painting and sculpture in college before he and his wife established his exhibits business about five years ago, said the idea to rejigger his production line came to him while he was watching news on television and fixing a lumberjack’s breakfast for his three children.
As New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, during a regular briefing, described the dire need for personal protective equipment, McCormick thought why not use his idle factory to make it? The next day, McCormick called in some of the staff and set to work on prototypes for masks and gowns that they created by studying designs they found online. Many designs were set up for 3-D printers, which he said can be marvelous but slow tools to use. He thought his company’s equipment — machines that handle and cut acrylic sheets and textiles — could do better.
“We had workable gowns by Monday and workable headgear by Monday,” McCormick said.
As word spread through social media, such as the firm’s Facebook page, orders started rolling in.
“It’s scary how much need there is,” he said.
The president of the American College of Emergency Physicians has said that federal officials told him that he and his colleagues should consider strategies to deal with a shortage of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves amid the pandemic. At one New York hospital, medical workers were each provided with a single mask and told to take good care of it because they might not receive another. At another in Washington state, workers were reportedly fashioning masks and gowns out of office supplies.
President Trump has called on private corporations to switch gears and produce medical gear, including ventilators, that are needed to treat people with the coronavirus, and some private businesses and corporations have responded. Ford, 3M and GM have teamed up to produce ventilators; Apple has said it will try to locate supplies for health-care providers; and Fiat is using an auto plant in China to manufacture masks for the U.S. market, Bloomberg News reported.
But whether that will be enough is too soon to say, and some have criticized the president for being slow to invoke a federal law that would allow the U.S. government to commandeer production.
McCormick said his firm has already sold about 10,000 units of headgear at about $10 a pop — which he knows would have cost a lot less only about three months ago. The company is working to iron out the kinks with the supply chain for its medical gowns, having come up with models that are still too expensive to produce. But he feels it won’t be long before that problem will be solved, too. On Wednesday he was driving a batch to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to see if they would pass muster.
“We know that a month ago, two months ago, you could get these gowns for a dollar,” he said. “Five days or three days ago we were a trade show company. We’re not a factory in China that only makes gowns.”
He said the company is figuring it out as it pushes on. His wife, Tracy, who is the company’s co-owner and has a background in actuarial science, math and economics, is helping to manage the flood of orders. She said in an email that if demand continues, they hope to put more folks back to work.
McCormick said his company’s experience shows the strength of the free enterprise system — but also the temptations. He knows he could charge exorbitant prices for his newly fashioned medical gear. But that would also be deeply unethical.
“I think unabridged capitalism can be abused,” McCormick said. “There’s an ethical quality to what we’re trying to achieve. If I win the lottery tomorrow, I’d give these away for free.”
For all the activity, a lot of his factory — located in an industrial park — is still idle. He said he has offered to detail his costs to buyers so they can see he’s trying to make items as cheaply as he can given the constraints of a supply chain he’s never used before. And, in any case, the money he’s making on protective gear can’t possibly make up what he has lost on his exhibits business.
McCormick said he doesn’t know of anyone exposed to the coronavirus, but he’s heard from several people who believe they might have been around others who had the illness while attending trade shows. The last one McCormick attended was the ConExpo-Con/Agg show, which was held over four days this month in Las Vegas.
“I was out there for six days, you know, in the casinos out in Vegas, when this really started to erupt,” he said. “And then I had to take a flight home, and that’s when the reality of this started to sink in.”