Governor Charlie Baker unveiled new rules on Monday that will require masks and more sanitation in offices and on factory floors, to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
But finding all that personal protective equipment to meet the demand is easier said than done.
The state’s PPE shortage doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as bad as it was in March, when Baker ordered all nonessential workplaces to close, and hospitals scrambled to get gear for health care workers.
However, many companies are still coming up short as they plan to reopen as soon as next week.
Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jim Rooney said he heard from a major financial company in Boston whose bulk order for masks was canceled. Chris Geehern at Associated Industries of Massachusetts said he received an e-mail Monday from a 25-person manufacturer that was having a hard time finding gloves, masks, and face shields. And JD Chesloff, head of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said most employees at his organization’s member companies are working from home now, but availability of PPE and cleaning supplies remains a big concern as they look forward to bringing some workers back to the office.
A state Senate working group led by Senator Bruce Tarr raised this concern in a letter sent last week to leaders in the Baker administration, suggesting that the state government consider making bulk PPE purchases to ensure small and midsized businesses can obtain what they need to reopen.
A new online portal that the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts launched on Monday, at www.protectma.com, shows one way that the private sector can play a role. The council is using the site to match businesses looking for protective equipment with black- and Latino-owned manufacturers and distributors who are looking to sell it.
Segun Idowu, the council’s executive director, said he is starting with minority-owned businesses on the supply side first, but would expand it to include others if the demand is strong enough. For now, the council is soliciting information about buyers and sellers via its site, but Idowu hopes to have a viable online marketplace for PPE and cleaning supplies and services running by the end of next week. Eventually, he wants to loop in delivery businesses, too, and arrange for bulk buying to help needy families.
The idea sprang out of concerns raised by many of his members in early April: They were struggling to find adequate masks and sanitizer, despite being deemed essential businesses by the state. At the time, the PPE was getting bought up for or donated to front-line workers, Idowu said. He said he asked if the state managed a reserve for essential businesses. No luck.
City Fresh Foods in Roxbury was among those essential businesses that initially found it challenging to get the PPE they needed. Chief executive Sheldon Lloyd said the company had to improvise, in part by making its own wipes and sanitizers. His order of face shields finally came in on Monday. (He already had a steady supplier for gloves because he’s in the food business.) He has enough PPE now, but he expects smaller businesses, with smaller networks, could end up scrambling without assistance.
Companies are already stepping up to meet the need. Newton-Needham Regional Chamber president Greg Reibman said the problem seemed more acute two weeks ago: The most popular items in his newsletter to members then were his lists of local companies selling PPE. But the local supply and demand seem now to be more evenly matched, he said, as some members pivoted their business to make or sell PPE. (One example: Adam and Marissa Goldstein launched Rafi Nova in Needham this year to sell travel bags made in Vietnam, but are now selling tens of thousands of masks instead.)
The demand will pick up again as countless offices, factories, restaurants, and stores reopen after Baker’s shutdown ends on May 18. The members of a task force advising Baker on his reopening strategy know this, as do Baker and his top lieutenants.
The administration recently launched a nearly $11 million program to help manufacturers that want to get into the PPE market. That’s a good start. However, until a viable COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, businesses of all sizes need dependable sources for their PPE supplies.
What was once primarily an issue for hospital workers and first responders could become an issue for nearly every workplace soon enough.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.