Making a Difference: Area businesses collaborate to produce face shields for hospital workers

Jamie Mills recited by memory a sign that hangs in the shop at his William J. Mills & Co. sailmaking shop in Greenport. It reads something like this: “The difficult we can do, the impossible just takes a little bit longer.”

That sort of can-do spirit has been prevalent among a collaboration of several local businessmen who have joined forces to lend their particular skill sets in the battle against the novel coronavirus. Mr. Mills, president of William J. Mills & Co., and his brother, vice president Bob, are working with Richard Vandenburgh, co-founder of Greenport Harbor Brewing Company; Bob Gammon, co-owner of Woodside Orchards in Jamesport; and Mark Miller, former owner of Miller Environmental to produce face shields for hospitals, first responders and community outreach volunteers.

Assembly of the face shields began Wednesday morning at Greenport Harbor Brewery Company in Peconic with the help of brewery staff and volunteers wearing safety equipment and following social distancing measures. They expect to assemble, clean and individually package 3,000-5,000 face shields. The lightweight face shields, with Velcro adjustable straps, offer clear vision while also protecting the face.

“It really took off from an idea to a reality in like a week and a half,” said Mr. Gammon, the co-lead advisor for the Southold/Greenport robotics team, which was expected to have about 14 team members and five mentors among the volunteers. “It’s amazing what can happen when people get together and pull the cart in the same direction.”

Greenport Harbor Brewing Co.’s John Leigey (from left) with Jamie Mills, Rich Vandenburgh and Bob Gammon on Wednesday. (Credit: Tara Smith)

A GoFundMe campaign to offset material costs began with an original goal of $10,000 for the COVID-19 Defense Fund. That figure was surpassed in a single day. A Phase II goal of $25,000 has been set. As of Tuesday morning, $20,970 had been donated. Any excess donations will be given to Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport.

“It just absolutely gives you faith in humanity the way people respond to a cause like this,” said Mr. Vandenburgh, who is also the Village of Greenport Business Improvement District president. He added, “It just blows me away.”

Mr. Miller, a Southold resident, said he’s not surprised by the outpouring of generosity. “I’ve seen this community so many times before come together,” he said. “Someone’s house burns down and the community rises to the occasion very quickly. Someone always pops their head up. It’s really what makes this place so darn special.”

An employee of The Greenport Harbor Brewing Company was the first Suffolk County person to test positive for COVID-19. Mr. Vandenburgh said that employee has fully recovered.

Jamie Mills said even before his business had shut down March 21 that he and his brother had spoken about the possibility of manufacturing face shields. He said they came up with eight or nine prototypes before developing the one they wanted.

“They’re just taking the skills that they have and applying it to a different purpose,” Mr. Miller said. “There’s a lot to say about good ol’ Yankee ingenuity.”

Mr. Miller, seeing the need for personal protective equipment, has been available to answer technical questions and provide financing. He has been “extremely generous,” said Mr. Gammon.

On Saturday, Mr. Vandenburgh, Mr. Gammon and the Mills brothers did a walk-through, setting up tables and laying down floor mats to designate each work station. “It’s been really all within the course of about four or five days that it’s all come together,” said Mr. Vandenburgh.

The tentative plan is to run two three-hour shifts, with about eight volunteers for each shift wearing face masks and gowns. They will be safely distanced in the 2,000-square-foot area, working as if they were on an assembly line, said Mr. Vandenburgh. “We’re hoping to do 300 shields a day without a problem,” he said.

Mr. Gammon, who received school approval to use members of the robotics team, said: “As the thing evolved, it turned out we needed more hands on deck to assemble the things than anything else. They’re all enthusiastic. They’re ready to help in any way they can. It’s kind of taken off on a life of its own.”

A sign outside the brewery lets people know how they can help. (Credit: Tara Smith)

The businessmen have talked about the possibility of venturing into producing face masks and gowns, too.

“There’s definitely a need, and based upon what we have seen so far with the shield, it’s going to be successful,” Jamie Mills said. “We’re not General Motors. We’re not pumping out 400,000 a day, but in our little community, we’re going to make a difference.”

Asked if there was going to be any sort of ceremony before the first face shield was assembled yesterday, Mr. Vandenburgh said, “It’s not a bad idea to have a quick moment of silence.”

Jamie Mills has seen the country face crises before, but nothing quite like this.

“There have been numerous challenges in the past, most of them financial and man-made during my lifetime,” he said. “This has definitely been different in that this pandemic, you can’t pinpoint any one person, business group, social group or even country. This is a calamity that we are all facing on a worldwide basis, [for] which you can’t point any fingers. We all have to tackle this thing together. As has been said on the media numerous times, we’re at war. We’re at war with this thing, and we’re going to win.”