Cleveland startup makes masks a new way

A masked worker in a brightly lit factory in southwest Cleveland is lining up a spool of cotton in a machine to make more masks.

Buckeye Mask Carla Macklin inspects a mask(1).jpg

A masked worker in a brightly lit factory in southwest Cleveland is lining up a spool of cotton in a machine to make more masks.

Nearby, three other masked workers are sitting at a table, threading a wire into each mask to help it ride the wearer’s nose.

With help from the state government and nonprofit groups, Cleveland’s new Buckeye Mask Company hopes to boost its capacity soon to 54,000 woven, washable, two-ply masks per day for use by industrial workers. With similar help, the 18-year-old Stitches USA hopes to reach about the same capacity with the same masks at its factory in Tuscarawas County’s Sugarcreek.

Officials say that the two companies are the first in the nation and maybe the world with fully automated production of woven, washable masks.

While watching the masks roll off one of Buckeye’s nine customized machine from Europe and drop into a bin, company president Carla Macklin, says, “We’ve been really excited in helping Ohio prevent the spread of this terrible disease.”

Masks and money

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some politicians have said to sacrifice prevention for prosperity, despite the disease’s costs. But the people in Ohio’s mask project hope to boost both our state’s health and the economy by making enough gear here for our needs and beyond.

The project was launched by the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (Magnet) a nonprofit consulting group for Northeast Ohio makers. At first, officials hoped that Ohioans could sew 150,000 masks per week by hand. Then they helped to engineer a way for machines to make up to about 100,000 per day, if demand keeps pace. They’re confident of finding buyers for at least 50,000 per day.

The nonprofit JobsOhio is lending $1.8 million to Buckeye Mask and $1.2 million to Stitches. And the state’s Development Services Agency is giving Ohio Retooling and Repurposing Grants of $30,000 to Buckeye Mask and $500,000 to Stiches USA.

Those two state agencies have teamed up with Magnet and the Ohio Hospital Association in the new Ohio Manufacturing Alliance to Fight COVID-19.

Different masks for different faces

Macklin has hired four people so far and hopes for somewhere between 12 and 24 at her 3,500-square-foot facility. Her masks are meant mostly for workers at big organizations, private or profit. They’re not quite as protective as the ones used in hospitals. But they’re washable, snug, and easy to take on and off without touching the contaminated part.

Macklin says they’re best for workers who need to keep their hands free for long intervals. She likes that they’re reusable, helping the environment.

Macklin has spent her career in textiles, designing patterns, starting companies and consulting. In March, she started sewing masks in her Shaker Heights basement for friends and family. She was consulting for Magnet until starting Buckeye Mask.

Buckeye Mask shares space, leaders and more with National Safety Apparel, an 85-year-old family business using the same factory on Manufacturing Road at Industrial Parkway. Macklin’s partners are Chuck Grossman, National Safety’s fourth-generation owner, and its COO, Sal Geraci. Buckeye also sells its masks to National, which aims to resell them.

Among other lines, National Safety’s roughly 500 workers make for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In a press release, Magnet CEO Ethan Karp said of the project, “This is Ohio at its best. This shows how technology and our existing manufacturing base will continue to grow and recapture revenue that is currently in countries like China. It takes collaboration, entrepreneurship, and sometimes a leap of faith, but we can do this and so much more.”

J.P. Nauseef, JobsOhio president and CEO, said, “Buckeye Mask and Stitches USA show that Ohioans have the ingenuity, will and talent to be a national leader in this essential effort.”

During its nine years, JobsOhio reports helping create more than 198,000 jobs, $9.3 billion in payroll and $56 billion in capital investments.

Masks help

Health experts widely agree that masks minimize the risk of the coronavirus. Kevin Brennan, communications officer for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, says, “We believe everyone should wear a mask. We think it’s a sign of respect for other people. With so many people being asymptomatic, it’s certainly possible that any of us could have it and not be aware of it.”

Masks don’t eliminate all risk, but Brennan says they help. “We’re looking at layers of protection that would include social distance, facial covering, hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, and health screenings.” He says to think of these layers as slices of swiss cheese, covering the gaps in our protection.

Since July 7, residents of Cuyahoga County have been required to wear masks in shared spaces. By Sept. 4, the county’s mask hotline had received 2,127 reports of possible violations. Officials had found 579 cases of full violations and 1,326 of partial violations.

Macklin says, “My community is taking it very seriously. It’s such an easy way to prevent the disease from developing, so we can get back to normal life.”

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