The coronavirus crisis has forced the closure of many Colorado businesses over the past two months.
But some saw an opportunity to innovate and pivot from making snowboards, yurts and ski boots to start producing face shields and other protective gear for health care workers.
Here are four of their stories:
Rex Deitesfeld says he is “as busy as a one-armed face-shield maker.”
This winter, his Longmont company, Zay Products, was marketing cutting-edge performance ski boots with ambitious plans to partner with the Steadman Clinic in Vail on a biomechanically compatible boot that would help prevent ski injuries.
Two months later, amid the COVID19-forced economic shutdown, the days have lurched by.
Deitesfeld now produces face shields, a plastic contraption that makes doctors and nurses look like astronauts, but keeps them from getting sprayed in the face with droplets of coronavirus while they work.
“From a business perspective it’s been a jumble of nuts. We’ve never worked at this pace, and plus this being so confusing,” Deitesfeld says. “My day starts with getting calls from people, I have no idea how they got connected, from hospitals saying, ‘How can you supply me?’ to marketing. And from reporters like you.”
Deitesfeld started supplying his one-size-fits-all personal protective equipment to medical folks at Vail Health and the Steadman Clinic. They are worn by health care professionals at UCHealth, Children’s Hospital and in Colorado’s 43 rural hospitals. To keep up with the demand, he added four employees, whom he’s paying up to $20 an hour to turn out hundreds of face shields per day. So far, Zay has made 20,000 disposable face shields and he has bought material for 130,000 more.
He laughs: “I’m hearing they’re so popular doctors are now asking for ‘The Zay.’”
Colorado Yurt Company
After 40 years with Swingle Tree and Landscape, including 10 years as president, John Gibson sold the company in January, and moved to Montrose to pitch tents.
These are tents on steroids called “yurts” — round-like structures used as tiny homes, for glamping and event sheltering. The Colorado Yurt Company under Gibson’s supervision had orders to supply structures for dozens of spring and summer events until the pandemic halted business.
“Coachella was delayed,” he says. “Private and public camps were put on hold. A fundraising event for a camp for disabled children in Utah was canceled.” Gibson says some of the nonprofit groups he was counting are in danger of losing their funding.
Instead of bowing to uncertainty, Gibson got busy with materials he had on hand. The heavy vinyl used for yurt windows has been a perfect anti-spew barrier . He first directed his staff to make 10,000 high-quality face shields using the window vinyl. To complete the projects, he sourced-out the foam for the halo that circles the wearer’s forehead and elastic that attaches it.
But face shields are so March, he says. Gibson has discovered there’s more potential for his yurt vinyl windows.
For instance, he’s manufacturing sturdy plastic curtains that separate ill patients who share hospital rooms. And as Coloradans get back to the office, he has plans for life post-COVID19 to develop plastic seat covers.
Gibson saw still another use for his yurt window plastic after reading a news article about an Oregon bus driver who was using Dollar Tree shower curtains to protect him from coughing commuters.
The future of public transportation will be a driver in a bubble.
Yurt is in talks with CoWest Transportation, the parent company of Telluride Express, American Spirit Shuttle and Alpine Express to develop a life-sized shield to wrap around their drivers.
“Yurts yesterday, bus curtains today,” says Gibson, who is making smaller body shields to fit in cabs and in cars for Uber drivers.
“We’re trying to be as creative as possible to keep the lights on,” he says. “I told my people, ‘Don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you.’”
He adds that with the help from a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, he has enough money to keep his employees working for six to eight weeks.
“After that, we’re pretty scared.”
There is only one road in and out of Silverton, an isolated mountain town of 600 about an hour north of Durango. Every business in Silverton is a gem, but one of its best known is Venture Snowboards.
The day after Gov. Jared Polis on March 14 ordered the temporary shutdown of Colorado’s ski industry, San Juan County issued a public health order prohibiting all gatherings larger than 30 people.
It was a “kick in the pants” for Venture Snowboards’ self-proclaimed board designer, owner and janitor Klem Branner. He decided to cancel one of his biggest annual fundraisers: the annual Silverton Splitfest, which brings in money for avalanche education.
“Two days later, I closed the factory and that was that,” he remembers. “I went into a ‘What the hell is gonna happen next?’”
Ten days later, Branner was researching how to make face shields, and by March 29, he had his first prototype using the plastic that normally forms the top of his snowboards.
“This is a piece of plastic we cut out, stick a piece of foam that fits your forehead and you attach elastic with a stapler,” he says. “I had to acquire a high-tech electric stapler to make it work!”
Branner and company have made 1,000 face shields, which he has sold for $3 each. He first bought the foam and elastic from Amazon for “way too much money,” but now he’s sourced enough material at a decent price for 3,000 more.
The tricky part, he says, is not knowing when to stop.
“Are people gonna want these shields in a month, or am I going to be sitting on a bunch of plastic no one needs?”
Silverton’s Hillside Cemetery is full of 1918 flu pandemic casualties, when nearly 10% of the local population died. At the time, the remote mountain town had the unhealthy distinction of having the highest per capita mortality rate in the nation.
But today, Silverton is in the clear. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has documented zero cases of coronavirus in San Juan County, of which Silverton is the county seat and the only incorporated town. But Branner says there’s been no testing, so the numbers may be skewed.
The spring of 2020 will be known for the unknown.
“It’s so weird to be in a start-up and your goal is to get out of that business as fast you can,” Branner says.
Fusion Specialties Inc.
No one is skiing, and no one is going to the store. So what’s the world’s largest mannequin manufacturer to do?
Enter Fusion Specialties’ “Project COVID Halo.” With the loss of 4,000 weekly mannequin orders from big-time retail giants like Target and Bloomingdales, Fusion rolled up its sleeves at its headquarters in Lafayette.
Design engineers in the business of torsos, arms and legs are now manufacturing bright orange halos for first responders and health care workers.
The halo of the face shield is the piece that circles the forehead and attaches to the plastic protective face shield.
The key to Fusion’s halo is E-Flex, the same material they use to mold their store mannequins. “We literally came up with the idea during a Zoom meeting,” says marketing director Jessica Nolan.
Fusion outsources its plastic shield cover from a Boulder company called Glassmith2. A thousand of Fusion’s halos went to rural hospitals in Colorado, and the company is in talks with University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Children’s Hospital Colorado.
At $11 each, Fusion’s product costs more than the going $3 to $5 rate of the one-and-done shields, but Fusion’s E-flex material can be sterilized by a UV light for repeated use, eliminating extra cost and waste.
As hundreds of the halos were first coming out of the mold to be assembled, Fusion Specialties founder Jim Talaric spoke with a friend, an ICU doctor at Lafayette’s Good Samaritan Hospital who was overwhelmed.
“The doc texted me. … He said ‘Jim, we are running short on these shields.’”
Talaric wasted no time.
“Did anybody ever imagine we’d be in a place like this?” Talaric says. “I felt like I wanted to do something to help this coronavirus thing and I had to move on it.”
No longer associated with Fusion since he sold the company, he bought 100 Fusion shields like any paying customer, and delivered them to the doctor’s porch.
Not longer after that, Talaric received a text from the hospital. It said “BINGO!” Good Samaritan medical staff were already wearing them.
Many pieces of personal protection equipment wind up in the hands of a group called Make4Covid, which was created when federal red tape and limited capacity to test and certify the new products for medical use in Colorado were slowing production.
M4C spokesman Omar Soubra says the organization was formed when hospitals had nowhere to turn. The group is made up of volunteers and CU Denver InWorks, a prototyping lab.
“We are proud to help health care personnel not become contaminated,” the Frenchman-turned-Coloradan explains.
In just over a month, more than 2,000 M4C volunteers have delivered more than 19,795 face shields, masks and face mask adapter buckles to the state’s first responders and health care professionals at UC Health, CU Anschutz and Colorado’s rural hospitals, including the 15-bed Melissa Memorial in Holyoke.
Melissa Memorial found itself with only a few masks and face shields when the virus first hit and had nothing to spare.
“We had some supplies,” hospital spokeswoman Elizabeth Hutches says. “But we were concerned with the long-term.”
M4C partnered with the Colorado Hospital Association to transport face shields and masks to Holyoke using a plane from Angel Flight West, which donates pilots who deliver in their spare time for medical relief.
“It’s scary out there because we were on our own,” Hutches says. “These people are amazing.”
This story was updated 4:55 p.m. on April 29 to correct that Venture Snowboards’ prototype used plastic that normally forms the top of its snowboards.