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Manufacturers find new purpose in COVID-19 crisis

With approximately 80 companies employing close to 3,800 people, Beaufort County’s manufacturing sector has a strong capability to make things during normal times. Now, with the rapid spread of COVID-19, some local manufacturers are considering the possibility of repurposing their operations to produce medical supplies to meet a surging national demand.

Beaufort County Economic Development Director Martyn Johnson says making such a move has a two-fold effect.

“Repurposing businesses to provide essential materials for the response to the COVID-19 pandemic not only creates the needed materials but also keeps businesses in business, their staff paid and the local economy moving through the initial impacts, plus the multiplier effects,” Johnson said.

MAKING THE SWITCH

Locally, some businesses such as The Hackney have already switched over to making critical supplies for the front lines. Normally a fine-dining restaurant and gin distillery, the business had produced 50 gallons of hand sanitizer on Wednesday, distributing to local EMS units, Zion Shelter and Kitchen, childcare facilities and Beaufort Area Transportation System.

Johnson says other manufacturers are also considering following suit with their operations. Specifically, he says Iconic Marine Group is looking at the possibility of repurposing its sewing room to make hospital gowns and masks.

At H&R Block in Washington, that business has also been somewhat repurposed during what would normally be crunch time for tax season. N.C. Representative Keith Kidwell, who also owns the business, has put his staff to work calling local businesses to see what they could potentially manufacture to aid the healthcare effort.

“I’ve got my staff sitting down right now to find out, ‘OK, can you retool and run something else, can you manufacture something else?’” Kidwell said Wednesday. “I’m contacting the Department of Public Safety to find out what the need is, get the specs to these companies. We’ll put the people to work, keep them on the job when they might otherwise be going home, and at the same time help the healthcare effort.”

ALREADY PRODUCING

In some cases, manufacturers in Beaufort County are already producing some of the health care supplies that have seen an uptick in demand amidst the current healthcare crisis. Johnson says companies like Flanders Filters, PNG Manufacturing, Oak Ridge Industries and Camfil were already producing these essential goods before the outbreak.

Two other local, interconnected companies, InterMarket Technology and Recyclingbin.com, are also doing their part to help, finding new uses for the items they already produce.

Intermarket, which typically produces display racks and storage solutions for retailers, just produced a set of signs for Physicians East in Greenville to help direct visitors before they enter the facility. Recyclingbin.com, meanwhile, typically produces secured steel bins for hospitals and nonprofits, items that are finding new use in different times.

“We make very large, medium and small collection bins, and those are being purchased for hospitals in Chicago, California and New York,” said Scott Gardner, president and CEO of both companies. “They’re using them to collect medical supplies like masks and gloves, and they’re also being used to quarantine COVID-19 apparel that people were wearing if they were found infected.”

HOW TO HELP

Companies interested in repurposing their facilities to manufacture a critical healthcare product can contact Matt Kemnitz at N.C. Emergency Management by calling 919-825-2365 or emailing matthew.kemnitz@ncdps.gov. Locally, they can also contact Johnson at 252-946-3970 or martyn.johnson@beaufortedc.com or Kidwell at 252-946-0497 or keith.kidwell@ncleg.net.

A full list of supplies needed can be found at www.nceast.org/overview/support-local.