Community contributes talents, resources to creating high-demand health supplies

Photo courtesy of Mary Ellen Krommer

By Nick Sullivan

Community members from around Cincinnati are using their skills to provide preventative health supplies to combat COVID-19.

Joe Maas, part owner of JTM Food Group and Northern Row Brewery & Distillery, said Northern Row was just days away from opening its taproom when operations were put on hold due to the coronavirus. They had already hired new staff members, but with all bars and restaurants closed, finding a use for those staffers was tricky.

“We’re not selling any beer, and we didn’t have any spirits to sell, but if we did, that business would have went away as well,” Maas said. “So, we shifted gears.”

Within a week, Northern Row began making hand sanitizer rather than bourbon, thus preventing employee layoffs while also providing a much-needed commodity in short supply.

Elsewhere, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on March 19 that people wear cloth face masks in public, Esther Kang said she immediately looked into how she could help. She reached out to her friend, a nurse at UC Oncology, to see if she should get a small group together to sew masks for her. At noon the next day, she started a Facebook group: Sew Masks 4 Cincy. 

By that evening the group had 500 members, and within 72 hours it had 6,000. The response, Kang said, was “absolutely incredible.”

“It’s amazing to see Cincinnati as a city rally together and work on this project together to protect those who are protecting us,” she said.

Learning curve

When the FDA notified distilleries on how to make hand sanitizer, Maas said there was not a huge shift in way of production. Making hand sanitizer is “essentially moonshine.”

“We were very skilled and doing very well making ethyl alcohol,” Maas said. “It really boiled down to getting it packaged and shipped.”

After finding a supplier of small plastic bottles and caps, Northern Row overcame this obstacle in under two weeks.

As for Kang, sewing does not come naturally, making her leadership position in Sew 4 Cincy slightly ironic.

“I sewed a locker organizer in sixth grade, and I’ve sewn maybe six pillow covers,” Kang said. “It is comical in some ways that I am not a sewist… and that I am helping organize this, but it’s been an honor.”

With so many volunteers, Kang said she has stuck strictly to the managerial side of operations, like identifying which hospitals accept homemade masks. She said she often fields questions as to why certain hospitals are not being donated to, and the simple answer is that not every hospital accepts them, though she regularly checks for updates regarding their policies.

Northern Row has also made a point of donating to health professionals and first responders. Maas said there was immediate demand from the Cincinnati Police Department. 

“It’s been sort of a blend of being able to satisfy a public need, to satisfy a demand, and to keep our people working and to keep our equipment operating,” Maas said.

Community involvement

Mary Ellen Krommer learned to sew at the age of three, perched atop her mother’s lap as she would guide material through the machine. Her mother was known for being the main seamstress on the large tapestries that hang in St. Ignatius of Loyola Church every Christmas and Easter. 

Today, Krommer is using her family talent to provide for the community in a different way: She has contributed an estimated 200 face masks to Sew Masks 4 Cincy and friends around the area. 

 “It’s been such a source of joy for me,” Krommer said. “It’s been a nice way to use my gifts and actually use a lot of my fabric stash.”

According to Kang, Sew Masks 4 Cincy has donated over 10,000 face masks at their official drop-off sites, but many people have been donating directly to friends and family as well. 

“There was one lady, this was day five of Sew Masks 4 Cincy, and she said that she had been sewing four days, ten hours a day. On day five,” Kang said. “That gives so much hope and so much joy amidst such a strange time that so many people are coming together in gratitude to our frontline workers.”

Making hand sanitizer has also brought the community together. Since beer is only good for a few weeks in kegs, local breweries have struggled to make use of their products. Rhinegeist Brewery brought its beer to Northern Row to be distilled. Together, the two breweries co-branded batches of hand sanitizer.

“Being able to work with Rhinegeist has just been fantastic,” Maas said. “They’re our neighbors, and I can’t say enough good things about Rhinegeist.”

Kang said many people have pent-up energy and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus. Contributing to a greater cause has helped ease this for some.

Krommer, who acted as her mother’s caretaker until her recent passing, said she has used her work as a way of reflection and finding purpose in life. 

“This has also been, I’ve realized, a time of grieving for me, not having her to focus on,” Krommer said. “Making the masks helped fill my time, where my time was pretty filled up with helping her. Other than that, I’m filled up with grandchildren, but that’s another grieving. I haven’t been able to see them.”

Looking ahead

Northern Row is now in talks with other local breweries about the possibility of co-branding more hand sanitizer. Mass said the response to their work has been “unbelievable.”

 “We can barely keep up with the demand,” Maas said. “People are showing up to buy a couple of growlers and a half a dozen hand sanitizers. It’s almost entertaining.”

Kang said those interested in contributing should consider donating directly to their frontline drop-off facilities listed on their website. Sew Masks 4 Cincy will soon be launching food donations to accompany mask donations.

Sew Masks 4 Cincy has a growing waitlist of interested businesses, including the Cincinnati Zoo. Kang said cities from across the country and even developing nations have contacted them, asking for help.

“Our mission right now is local. If we fulfil the need in Cincinnati, then we’ll go from there,” Kang said.

Those interested in purchasing Northern Row’s hand sanitizer should email safe@northernrow.com. Tri-Health-approved face mask templates and drop-off guidelines can be found at sewmasks4cincy.org

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