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Rallying cry: When pandemic came down, Macomb businesses stepped up

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Macomb County in mid-March, it hit hard. Everyone felt the effect as hospitals took care of vulnerable patients, businesses were shuttered overnight and area schoolchildren struggled to understand how the school year was abruptly over.

As essential workers and residents at home each did their part to mitigate and treat the virus, the disruption to the economy created its own set of challenges. Small business owners worried about the future of their stores and employees wondered how they were going to pay their bills. However, throughout it all, communities came together. The stories below demonstrate how businesses, schools and corporations stayed strong by supporting and helping their communities as they weathered the storm together.

From Canning to Sanitizing

“We have the equipment, we have the people.”

Just like that, Blake’s Hard Cider went from canning hard cider to making hand sanitizer. It was an easy decision to make, based on the need in the community and surrounding area, said Andrew Blake, owner and founder.

The family-owned distillery repurposed its cannery operations to manufacture and package liquid hand sanitizer to help with supply and demand issues created in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. With people having trouble finding supplies to protect their families and employees, Blake’s was happy to pitch in and help, he said.

The sanitizer is available in gallon jugs for medical facilities like McLaren and Hurley and others around the state and for businesses as they come back on line. Smaller quantities are available for personal use and families.

Working Around the Clock

When PTI Engineered Plastics Owner and CEO Mark Rathbone received a call about making airflow assemblies for General Motors’ ventilator program, it was 4 p.m. on a Friday. His team immediately went into high gear, working throughout that night and the weekend and by the following Monday they were making molds and prepping the work.

“We worked around the clock until we finished it,” he said. PTI made five to six different plastic components for the breathing valve and cough-assist valve. With a tight timeline, it was all hands on deck with everyone from engineers, the mold making team, quality engineers, operators, toolmakers and designers pitching in to get the work done. They were happy to do it, said Rathbone.

“A lot of it was a sense of patriotism,” he said.

PTI Engineered Plastics is a custom injection molder and manufacturer of plastic components and assemblies, with a specialty in low volume production. Headquartered in Macomb, the company typically makes components for the medical industry. Also this spring, PTI was making thousands of face shields and shipping them out each week to hospitals in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

Using existing designs for reference, the company made many improvements, such as a flexible frame design to accommodate a variety of head proportions and a visor on top for preventing contamination from above. The lens of the shield was designed for an overall size that would provide adequate protection and has angled cuts with rounded portions at the bottom for increased mobility. Other features include an adjustable strap with side grip features and rear support, and open cell foam padding at the forehead to allow for air flow and provide cushion.

From Safeguarding Boats to Protecting People

Usually in early spring, employees at Lake Shore Boat Top Company, Inc. in St. Clair Shores are gearing up for a busy season. After the Detroit Boat Show wraps up, people are typically ready to start dreaming about summer and that starts with getting their boat repairs completed, custom canvases made and upholstery and flooring replaced. They may even make preparations to get their boat out of storage.

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that all non-essential businesses had to close their doors beginning March 25, Rob Kotowski, like so many other business owners, felt a little panic set in. The president of Lake Shore Boat Top Company, Inc. wondered if his business, which has been family-owned since 1959, could survive.

“I started brainstorming on what our company could do,” he said in an email. “I saw the need for PPE (personal protection equipment) and felt our company could provide the masks and shields and make that transition with the equipment we already had in place.  Face shields and masks seemed like a logical choice.  We have also worked with some local companies to develop protective barriers. Most of the designs came from materials we use every day or materials we had relatively easy access to.”

So, company leaders started looking at how to produce PPE. Kotowski asked his sister, who works on the front line, for her input. They decided that the CNC cutting table could develop a pattern.

“We are able to cut hundreds of units in an hour,” he said.

As of late April, the business had produced more than 36,000 face masks and facial shields. All of these were used by local healthcare workers and first responders.

The entire staff has stepped up to help.

“We are all working hard for a great cause and I can see it in all their faces that they feel proud to be a part of it,” said Kotowski. “We have transitioned our passion from boats to helping the hardworking people of our community.”

A Firehouse Thank You

To thank medical professionals for their service during this time of uncertainty, Firehouse Subs Sterling Heights Franchisee Troy Osborne and General Manager Jennifer Scott partnered with Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation to donate nearly 200 meals to local healthcare workers at Dearborn Beaumont Hospital, Beaumont Hospital – Royal Oak, Ascension St. John Hospital and McLaren Hospital.

Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation has partnered with Firehouse Subs restaurants to feed healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as individuals and families in need and seniors who are unable to leave their homes through the Foundation’s COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund. Throughout the month of April, all funds collected by Firehouse Subs restaurants through Round Up, canister donations and recycled pickle bucket donations supported immediate COVID-19 disaster relief efforts.

‘A Patriotic Duty’

Being in the Detroit Arsenal of Democracy corridor, Thomas Cleaver, owner of Prestige Imports LLC in Mount Clemens, said they feel it’s their patriotic duty to help out when needed in a time of crisis. Being a unique, high margin beer, wine and spirit brand that produces private label spirits for corporations across the United States, the company was capable of helping out, so Cleaver said it was no question whether or not they would.

So, the company purchased 2.5 million 1.75 liter plastic sure grip bottles and caps and got to work. They converted their Iowa plant to handle the change in early March.

Prestige Imports’ Red Fox hand sanitizer is an 80% alcohol antiseptic topical solution available in a non-aerosol disinfectant spray. Employees have been busy taking orders from beverage distributors, janitorial companies, hospitals, military, glass companies and others.

“The reaction has been great, we have been blessed with many orders from across the United States and only have 3-4 order/ship turn around,” said Cleaver. “Sales of the hand sanitizer has offset the sales lost to bars and restaurants being closed.  Overall, we are very happy with the conversion, sales and helping keep America safe.”

Combatting an Invisible Enemy

When Prototech Laser, Inc. in New Baltimore was approached by one of its long-time customers about making face shields, the response was an unequivocal “yes.”

As a full service metal fabricator, Prototech historically works with the automotive, defense and general industry markets. In order to convert its operations for COVID-19 personal protective equipment, they had to retool a portion of its operations in order to accommodate these new manufacturing specifications.

“Everybody was excited to play a part,” said Ed Genord, president. “We as a company feel as though it is our responsibility to do our part in these challenging times.”

One of Prototech’s specialties is quick response time to new programs, an approach that certainly works well during this time-sensitive and critical period.

Prototech has been in business for 30 years so they have seen plenty of ups and downs throughout the decades, specifically, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 economic crisis. COVID-19 presents its own unique challenge, but Genord is happy to keep employees working by having this work to complete.

“Just as we are providing services to combat this current invisible enemy, we also helped our country during the Gulf War by providing up-armor kits to HUM-V ground vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect our troops from landmines,” he said. “We feel as though we saved numerous lives by our contribution to the war effort.”

The company has also been making parts for ventilators for another long-time customer.

Classrooms Donate to Emergency Rooms

When personal protection equipment (PPE) was desperately needed, many medical facilities and painting companies that were closed donated their excess inventories of gowns, gloves and masks so doctors and nurses would have what they needed. Donations of these items also poured in from a more unconventional source: Macomb County high schools.

Within empty classroom walls sat a goldmine of PPE, mostly gleaned from the schools’ science labs and vocational classes. The classroom science labs, physical therapy and pharmacy tech programs at Fitzgerald Senior High School, said Superintendent Laurie Fournier, donated safety goggles, disposable personal protection gowns, hair coverings, shoe coverings, N95 masks and gloves.

All Macomb County school districts donated equipment, which was housed at the Macomb County Intermediate School District (MISD) and turned over to county officials for delivery to the county’s hospitals.

Says Fournier, “Having these items just sitting in rooms not being used didn’t make sense – it was a ‘no brainer’ to pack these items up and send them to be used by our wonderful medical staff and essential workers.”

Taking Pride in the Arsenal of Information

RCO Engineering in Roseville was passionate about helping Michigan’s front line workers, said General Manager Jeff Simek. As COVID cases in Michigan were rapidly increasing this spring, RCO began to brainstorm various ways in which they could help Michigan health care workers.

A leading product development partner primarily in automotive, aerospace and defense industries, the company takes pride in its ability to move from concept and beyond production with a flexible manufacturing environment. This flexibility coupled with scalability allowed RCO to pivot toward manufacturing of medical personal protection equipment (PPE), he said.

RCO decided to begin the development and production of face shields a couple weeks before Michigan’s stay at home order. Considering this an important investment for the community, RCO ordered the steel required and started cutting a single cavity tool capable of producing 3,000 face shields per day. As demand increased, RCO started building more tools. By the end of April, RCO had 25 injection molding cavities that were capable of producing nearly 50 shields per minute.

“RCO is inspired to be a part of Michigan’s arsenal of innovation,” said Simek. “We truly feel that the industrial strength in Macomb will be left with a diversification for medical products to put alongside our strength in automotive, aerospace and defense. The pivot to supporting the medical industry with face shields, gowns, masks and ventilator components has uplifted RCO’s spirit.”

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