Mississippi businesses ‘roll up their sleeves,’ retool for coronavirus supplies

Published 7:36 am Monday, March 30, 2020

As the nation hunkers down and people shelter in place amid the coronavirus pandemic, several Mississippi businesses have stayed open, switching gears to make much-needed products.

A jeans company is making face guards, a coffeehouse is making loaves of bread and distilleries are making hand sanitizer. They’re hoping to keep their employees working as they help fellow Mississippians battle the outbreak.

“Americans roll up their sleeves. Mississippians roll up their sleeves,” Josh West, CEO of Blue Delta Jeans, said at the company’s manufacturing plant in Shannon, where the production of custom jeans has been retooled for mask-making. “We’ve dealt with disasters before, nothing like this, but it’s just kind of ingrained, especially in the manufacturing community.”

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Ten seamstresses, wearing gloves and masks, sat behind sewing machines stitching together sheets of fabric and elastic bands to create a face guard. Three layers of white fabric provide enough protection to keep elements from leaving or entering a person’s mouth and nose.

The first batch will be going to Memphis, Tennessee, for distribution by the local government. Masks will then be sent to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

“We don’t want to be the distribution point. The government agencies know where they need to go,” West said. “We just want to ship our bulk to them and let them distribute the face guards to people.”

West estimates a single seamstress can produce about 42 face guards in an hour. With many of his employees ready for the challenge, he has set a goal to make up to 10,000 masks daily.

“(Being able to work) means a lot to me,” said Sarah Richey, an aide at Blue Delta Jeans who is a widow and has her son and granddaughter living under her roof. “I’m just glad that we work for a company that has found us something else to do. It makes you feel proud.”

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 3.28 million unemployment claims were filed in the week that ended March 21.

“I’m so grateful to be considered an essential employee,” said Laura Hallmark, the head baker at Strange Brew Coffeehouse in Tupelo. “I’m grateful to be working at an essential establishment that is providing food for our community. I’m grateful because my husband is out of work right now, so I’m the breadwinner.”

Strange Brew Coffeehouse has 75 employees at three locations in northern Mississippi and is adding up to six more workers. Each location is making up to 50 loaves of fresh homemade bread per day.

“I know it’s exciting that we are hiring this week, which is a word that you don’t hear too much around the city right now,” Strange Brew Coffeehouse owner Katelyn Reed said moments before interviewing potential employees. “Even in times like this, being able to bring on extra hands to to be able to meet the demand is really important, and I’m really proud of that.”

At the Tupelo location, customers don’t have to leave their car because they’re able to pick up on the drive-thru window at the building that was once a gas station.

Customer Maggie Reeder, an occupational therapist in Tupelo, rolled by the drive-thru and bought a loaf of fresh bread while picking up coffee with her friend Kylie Waldrop.

“In the store it’s been really hard to find like toilet paper, bread, milk, eggs,” Reeder said.

Lazy Magnolia Brewery in Kiln and Cathead Distillery in Jackson are now producing alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

“That’s pretty much the heart of small business,” Reed said. “It’s doing whatever you can to keep as many people employed as long as you can. We were lucky to find a way that also serves the community.”