Had the baseball season not been postponed because of the coronavirus, players across the country would have been decked out in crisp new uniforms for opening day Thursday. Now, some uniforms will be put to better use.
Fanatics, the company that manufactures the Nike uniforms for Major League Baseball, has temporarily converted its domestic factory in Easton, Pa., to produce desperately needed protective masks and gowns for medical professionals who are fighting the pandemic in the United States.
The masks are made from the same bolts of polyester mesh fabric used to make big-league uniforms, and the first prototypes bear the distinctive pinstripes of the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies.
"We’ve got tremendous amounts of fabric, which is exactly what the players wear,” said Michael Rubin, the founder and executive chairman of Fanatics. "We’re just taking it and making the masks and gowns that can be used by the people who are working to save lives every day.”
Protective masks have been in short supply across the country, leaving health care workers more vulnerable to infection as they work with patients being treated or tested for COVID-19.
The coronavirus is generally transmitted through viral droplets — often emitted by coughing, spitting or sneezing — and from contaminated surfaces. At best, doctors should be wearing respirators, eye protection and gloves. Gowns are also needed because the virus can survive for periods of time on surfaces of some materials.
Rubin said prototypes of the new masks made with the material for baseball uniforms were developed last week, with help from experts from the St. Luke’s hospital system in Pennsylvania. The masks will go there and to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency first.
He said that they provided basic protection, not the best protection found in respirators, but that they were still useful in a crisis. They would not be approved for surgery.
Rubin said the state of Pennsylvania offered to pay for the production, but Fanatics and MLB agreed to bear the costs.
"When Michael called me about this, it was the first piece of good news in a while,” Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, said in a telephone interview. "I really hope it’s just the first step in baseball contributing to the country getting back on the road to normalcy.”
The shift is part of a broader push for apparel companies to make basic medical goods quickly, using material and equipment that are not specialized, like those required for some respirators.
The Fanatics factory was closed last week as part of mass closures of nonessential industries, but was soon reopened for the production of the masks and gowns.
Rubin, who is also a part owner of the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, said he was already discussing the possibility of making masks and gowns with the material in stock at Fanatics when the company was contacted by St. Luke’s, seeking help with protective equipment. March and April are normally months when Fanatics is busy producing uniforms for teams and for commercial sales, so Rubin called Manfred for permission to use the material for the masks and gowns. Manfred was eager to support the project.
"I just love the symbolism of patterns that are associated with baseball being used by the people who are carrying a huge burden for all of us,” Manfred said.
Governor Tom Wolf heard about the endeavor and called Rubin to urge him to go forward.
Wolf said in a statement he was grateful for the shift by Fanatics.
"Their innovative approach will be a model for other businesses to follow in Pennsylvania and throughout the country,” Wolf said.
The first masks, bearing the Phillies and Yankees’ pinstripes, came out of production Wednesday and were expected to be distributed to hospitals within a couple of days.
Fanatics hopes to produce at least 10,000 masks and gowns per day to start, but Rubin said they hoped to increase to 15,000 per day. He said they had enough uniform material in stock for two months.
After supplying hospitals in Pennsylvania, Fanatics will look toward New Jersey and New York with masks and gowns made from Yankees pinstripes. If they have the capacity to produce for other areas, and it is feasible, those could be made from the uniforms of the teams in those areas, too.
"There is incredible pride for our 7,000 employees to be able to do our small part to help the heroes that are on the front lines to save lives every day,” Rubin said. "It’s amazing how quickly something can go from an idea to production when it’s needed.”