The Lawrence-based clothing manufacturer 99 Degrees Custom is shifting its production from sports apparel to specialized isolation gowns for hospitals. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with the President and CEO of 99 Degree Customs, Brenna Schneider, to learn more about how the company is stepping up to help medical workers. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: We saw you talking with the governor at one of his daily briefings this week. First, we want to thank you for stepping up to help your community when we really needed.
Brenna Schneider: Absolutely. It was an honor to be at the State House, and it feels like the right thing for our team to do right now.
Mathieu: You're pledging to make a million gowns. How much is involved in transitioning a manufacturing plant to make an altogether different product?
Schneider: So first, the gowns are in process. We have a first order for a large, nationally renowned hospital that we're producing because we had access to fabric. So those are underway, which is great news. Then we'll quickly be transitioning to the state's order. To do that, there's a number of things that we're thinking about. One is ensuring the health and safety of our team. So we've re-designed the entire layout of our facility to ensure social distancing at work, and we've started with a rolling open so that we can train employees without so many people in a small space — training on health and safety procedures and new policies, as well as new operations for the new products. The second part is around supply chain, so making sure that we have a tried and true fabric that is certified and is used in the medical industry. This is a new supply chain for us and a new product category for us, so we wanted to rely on the experts. So that's been an important step forward. And then new equipment, which is on its way.
Mathieu: I wonder how the staff is dealing with this. I assume that maybe not everybody would be working if you were not part of this program.
Schneider: Sure. So we did furlough the majority of our employees after the governor announced the first two-week close for non-essential businesses. And even though we were repositioning as an essential business, we felt that we also needed to take the time to develop the right policies. We have offered our whole team to come back for this effort and we're actually hiring, so we're training new employees as well as retraining our current employees.
Mathieu: So it must bring a huge dose of optimism [and a] sense of mission.
Schneider: The team [that] is working on gowns is so proud. It's a sense that we're all together doing something for the greater good, and there's been a lot of momentum and energy around that, for sure.
Mathieu: I wanted to ask you more about [the gowns]. I'm reading Level 1 and Level 2 isolation gowns you're making. What makes these special? I know you have to meet FDA requirements.
Schneider: We do. And so we've sent our products out for FDA testing. That's been one of the benefits of partnering with the state in the last few weeks. The FDA regulation has been changing to enable manufacturers like me to meet the core requirements to keep our first responders and medical professionals safe. And so the state has been an amazing partner in helping us navigate those regulations and ensure a tested and compliant product. So that is something that we're really proud to be doing, is making critical PPE that is certified against FDA standards.
Mathieu: So what's your timeline for the first gowns rolling off the line?
Schneider: We have gowns rolling off the lines now. But the first gowns for the state will be delivered at the beginning of May, and then we'll continue ramping production through to the summer for the state's order, as well as other health care networks and hospitals around the country.