About a week after Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order, Eric Zuckerman and his workers retooled a small plant on the Northwest Side to make face shields needed by health care workers and others with prolonged exposure to the public.
Mission accomplished, or so he thought. He said his company, Pac Team Group, can make about 750 shields a day. But there’s a problem. Zuckerman said Tuesday he can’t get through to any state or city agency to coordinate a sale. And he said he’s got 1,000 shields in inventory ready to go.
So he listens to government officials on the news begging for protective equipment and he’s flummoxed.
“We want to get this equipment out to people who need it, but we haven’t found the right people to take it,” said Zuckerman, president of Pac Team. “All the agencies are so inundated right now. Getting their attention is quite difficult.”
The company typically makes custom displays and fixtures for high-end retail stores. That business has ceased, so rather than put staff on furlough, Zuckerman and his employees figured they could help in the coronavirus pandemic and establish a temporary business sideline. “We were kind of divide and conquer. Different members of our team came to the task at hand,” he said.
Zuckerman said he’s charging $8.98 per mask, more than double what they might cost imported from China. But he said it’s what he needs to cover costs and he’d donate some to hospitals to get feedback on the design. “Our goal was to keep people working without having to implement salary reductions and streamline operations and put people on unemployment,” he said.
“This is not meant to be a moneymaker so we could go on vacation. This is to keep everyone working.”
A state official involved with the COVID-19 response invited Zuckerman and businesses that can produce needed equipment to email firstname.lastname@example.org but otherwise had no comment on the lack of response to Pac Team. Andrew Buchanan, a spokesman for the city’s Health Department, said a city official would be in touch with the company.
The work has kept a staff of about 10 on the job at 4447 W. Armitage Ave. while keeping appropriate social distances They include carpenters, cabinet makers and painters. Pac Team has an office in Paramus, New Jersey, but is part of a Swiss-based company that’s been around since 1949.
Zuckerman’s factory is in the 36th Ward of Ald. Gilbert Villegas, who has been in touch with Zuckerman via Twitter and connected him to city and state offices. “What this pandemic has shown is we need to start doing manufacturing in the United States again,” Villegas said.
He said the higher price of the shields compared to those from China should not be a deterrent. “We need to factor everything into that price, like the price of the folks involved in the manufacturing not getting on unemployment and not buying things,” the alderman said.
Zuckerman said he has applied to have his shields certified under a manufacturing standard for eye and face protection. He said the product is listed with the Food and Drug Administration. The shields are designed to be worn with masks and can provide extra protection for workers in nursing homes, grocery stores and pharmacies in addition to hospitals.
Pac Team has manufacturing sites in Europe and China that it has converted to produce N95 masks, face shields, gloves, gowns and other products for local demand. A facility in China can produce 30,000 face shields a week, but Zuckerman said sending any here can be difficult because some importers promise more than they have the contacts to deliver.
If there are no local buyers for his shields, Zuckerman said he’ll have to look elsewhere. “We can only keep working so long just to make a stockpile,” he said.