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Closed by governor’s orders, a Chicago clothing factory looks to make masks for health care workers

The cloth masks might not be entirely effective. But the owner says he’s willing to help however he can.

Rob McMillan, founder and owner of Dearborn Denim, poses with a prototype of a fabric mask.
Rob McMillan, founder and owner of Dearborn Denim, poses with a prototype of a fabric mask.
Dearborn Denim/Instagram

Rob McMillan’s small business, like most others deemed non-essential, has been forced to close shop as Illinois officials try anything and everything to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

McMillan, a former Chicago Board of Trade bond trader, is the founder and owner of Chicago-based Dearborn Denim & Apparel. But since his Homan Square factory isn’t making jeans and T-shirts during the statewide stay-at-home order, he decided to try something new to possibly help fill a dire need.

“Making masks is essential work and a way we can help out,” McMillan said. “So we’re going to try and switch over and see if anybody needs it.”

McMillan’s move comes as hospitals across the country are scrambling to deal with a well-documented shortage of personal protective equipment — or PPE — that keeps health care workers safe from infection while treating contagious patients. The problem has become so severe that doctors and nurses are re-using PPE, which is highly advised against.

“We need millions of masks and hundreds of thousands of gowns and gloves and the rest. And unfortunately, we’re getting still just a fraction of that,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Sunday morning on CNN, chiding the federal government for what he called a lack of coordination.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor said Sunday morning in a CNN appearance that FEMA has “been shipping continuously from federal warehouses and connecting those governors that need supplies to those who have it in the commercial sector,” but he wouldn’t say how much have been distributed.

One of the most critical shortages is face masks, such as the N95 masks that are most effective in shielding medical workers and other less-protective but still usable medical masks.

The shortage is “enormous,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“It’s a crisis. It’s a huge problem,” Murphy said. “The whole thing is a disgrace, why we don’t have more of these things. We’re talking about really low-tech stuff.”

McMillan’s masks won’t and shouldn’t be a replacement for the usual PPE, especially not N95s. For now, they’ll be made out of the same material as his T-shirts (cotton), using an open-source pattern that he found online. If the factory runs at full capacity, McMillan can make 3,000 per day. He said he would try a test run early Sunday morning.

“I think it’s great that we have an opportunity to help out,” he said. “I don’t even know if these things are going to be helpful. But hopefully, we can contribute in a meaningful way.”

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says homemade masks like a bandana or scarf should be used as a “last resort” and are not considered PPE since their capability to protect workers is unknown. The World Health Organization says “cloth (e.g. cotton or gauze) masks are not recommended under any circumstance.”

But when compared to wearing no mask at all, cloth might offer at least one barrier of protection, however ineffective it may be.

Lauren Streicher, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern, wrote in a blog post that cloth masks can still help doctors and nurses who are doing all sorts of jobs other than treating COVID-19 patients. She urged people to follow the #millionmask challenge and sew masks at home.

“With dwindling supplies, it is critical for health care workers who are at the highest risk to have the N95 respirator masks,” Streicher wrote. “Health care workers who require a mask but are not working directly with Covid patients can use these cloth masks.”

McMillan said doctors and nurses who are running out of PPE have already reached out asking for his help after he told people on Instagram to spread the word.

Murphy said he applauds McMillan and other entrepreneurs for trying to help, but he wants to make sure resources aren’t wasted on something that doesn’t work.

“I don’t think we want to discourage these people, but they’ve got to prove that it works. We don’t want crap going out there,” Murphy said. “Even if it doesn’t work, I think it’s a great example of creative people thinking out of the box ...”

McMillan said he would be willing to make N95 or other proven medical masks if he can get his hands on the right materials.

He’s also worried about his business’ future. Founded in 2016, Dearborn Denim’s popularity has grown exponentially with stores in Hyde Park, Andersonville and Lincoln Park. But like any small business, operations are on a tight margin. His employees, he said, are wondering where their next paycheck is coming from with all their usual work halted.

“We’re right in there with every other small business,” he said. “This is very difficult.”