Textile Operations Seek Reopening to Meet Demand for Critical Medical Gear in Covid-19 Fight
Call On Puerto Rico Governor to Exclude Them From Curfew/lockdown Order Along With Other Manufacturers
SAN JUAN – Textile and apparel manufacturers in Puerto Rico are calling on the Gov. Wanda Vázquez administration to exclude them from the curfew/lockdown executive order so they may reopen and address the heavy demand of personal protection equipment for medical personnel, such as surgical masks, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Josean Feliciano, executive director of Puerto Rico Industries for the Blind (PRIB), a nonprofit textile and apparel manufacturing operation in Mayagüez, said that directives issued last week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Defense have established that health-related manufacturing is a priority during the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) epidemic.
In a memorandum dated March 20, the U.S. undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, Ellen Lord, includes employees in manufacturers of medical supplies as part of “essential critical infrastructure workers during the Covid-19 response emergency” and who are expected to “maintain their normal work schedules.”
“The governor includes textile manufacturing for military purposes in the order in contrast to similar lockdowns in many states, which do not include this because it is considered a part of critical infrastructure due to national security reasons,” Feliciano told Caribbean Business.
Along with other textile manufacturers on the island, the PRIB plant was shuttered after Gov. Wanda Vázquez issued an executive order March 15, closing all nonessential workplaces and implementing a curfew to curb the spread of the highly infectious virus. While the order allows food distribution operations as well as pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing plants to continue operating, textile and apparel manufacturers were not similarly exempted from the closing mandate.
PRIB makes military uniforms for the U.S. Department of Defense, including protective clothing for soldiers, Feliciano said, adding that the federal agency and companies on the island have approached the nonprofit company to produce surgical masks. He said there is a shortage of surgical masks stateside and locally due to the pandemic.
“We have been approached by several local and multinational businesses and federal agencies interested in the capacity we have to produce surgical masks,” he said, noting that negotiations with the DoD are “quite advanced.”
Feliciano said PRIB has a team developing the product and identifying sources for the raw material needed for its manufacture.
“We expect in that in the next few days, we will be able to start with that production,” he said, noting the plant has a mix of “talented and experienced workers” and newly trained formerly unemployed employees. “Depending on the number of employees we recruit and the type of product we develop, we could produce anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 surgical masks a week.”
The nonprofit manufacturing operation started in 2013 as an enterprise to provide training and work for the blind, but in recent years has included workers with other disabilities and who were unemployed, Feliciano said.
The operation—which has 384 employees, 230 of whom have some type of physical or mental disability—benefits from the AbilityOne federal procurement program, which gives preference to the purchase of products and services from nonprofits that provide 75 percent of direct work hours to employees with disabilities. Feliciano said the plant generates production worth more than $10 million a year in apparel merchandise
Feliciano said that in a memorandum related to the curfew/lockdown executive order, Puerto Rico Economic Development & Commerce Department (DDEC by its Spanish acronym) Secretary Manuel Laboy explicitly excluded textile and apparel manufacturing from the list of operations that may remain open.
“The state government is aware of the instructions given by the Department of Defense to its contractors,” he said. “We have been making the rounds with [Laboy] and directly with La Fortaleza [governor’s office] to take note of the Department of Defense instructions to make the necessary modifications to the governor’s mandate.”
A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with a press contact for Laboy.
Case by case
Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association (PRMA) President Carlos M. Rodríguez told Caribbean Business that other textile and apparel manufacturers in Puerto Rico wish to reopen and make personal protective gear for medical personnel dealing with the crisis. He said the Vázquez administration is concerned that workers in these operations are grouped too closely together in one place to avoid contagion.
“We have been working with these industries so they may communicate to the DDEC secretary their concerns and the contagion-prevention control measures being implemented at these plants so that the government feels comfortable in allowing them to reopen,” the PRMA chief said, noting that there are 12 textile and apparel operations on the island that employ about 8,000 people, with almost the totality of them being sustained by U.S. Department of Defense contracts for uniforms.
“These operations can modify their production lines with the correct material to change from making military uniforms to making, say, medical doctor overalls. The surgeon masks are relatively easy to make, also,” he said.
Rodríguez said that Laboy told PRMA and textile manufacturers that their requests to reopen would be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“We have been lobbying strongly these past weeks to allow manufacturers to remain open if they change production to personal protection equipment,” he said. “The government focused on what it saw as too many workers together instead of the potential to alleviate the crisis with personal protection equipment.”
However, PRIB’s Feliciano said that measures had been implemented in the plant weeks ago to deal with the Covid-19 threat.
“We are confident that this will be changed. That is our hope. It is in La Fortaleza’s hands to decide on this,” he said.
PRIB is considering the manufacture of surgical mask for direct sale to local businesses and individuals, Feliciano added.
“We are considering this due to the need for [surgical masks] in the local market and the lack of suppliers of these products here,” he said.