While most of America has been watching the shortage of medical supplies with horror, Joann Stores has gotten busy. On the first day of a program to stitch up 100% cotton face masks, it says its army of crafters has already made 250,000. And it’s looking to expand those efforts, urging crafters to start making hospital gowns for patients and surgical scrubs for healthcare providers.
The program started as the chain noticed more and more customers coming in to buy fabric and elastic. “Then, we had an influx of hospitals and healthcare chains coming to us about the severe shortage of face masks,” says Amanda Hayes, a spokesperson for the Hudson, Ohio-based retailer.
“It’s just gotten dangerous and scary,” she tells Marketing Daily, “and we thought, 'We have a real need and a talented customer base. And we can even invite people into our stores to use our sewing machines.’”
The company is giving away supplies and guidance to make the masks and serving as a collection point.
Among the hospitals it’s working with? University Hospitals in Cleveland, and the Cleveland Clinic. It’s also letting medical facilities secure materials such as fabric, elastic and clear vinyl for their initiatives.
The retailer is well aware it’s courting controversy. For one thing, homemade masks may not be effective -- the CDC says that since their ability to protect healthcare providers is unknown, such masks should only be used as “a last resort.”
True enough, Hayes says. “We know these aren’t N95 masks or even surgical grade,” she says. “But what these are doing is helping to extend those critical supplies. And something is better than nothing.”
She says the company is also working to develop covers specifically for N95 masks, so they can be used over longer periods.
Second, some experts argue that by staying open -- and encouraging people to physically come to stores -- retailers are helping to spread the virus, putting employees and vulnerable populations at risk. Many retailers deemed nonessential have closed, either by choice or by local or state authorities.
“What’s considered essential is subjective,” Hayes says, adding that in some places, including Louisiana, Joann has been deemed essential.
Hayes says the stores are paying close attention to both social distancing and sanitizing guidelines.
Its social-media channels are full of comments from angry employees and customers who disagree.
“Protect your employees, customers, and everyone else by closing your stores! Trying to deem yourself as essential in a time of crisis with no way to properly sanitize your store? This is clearly for profit and I’m disgusted with you! CLOSE THE STORES!!!,” writes one commenter on Instagram.
“Your employees are terrified and overwhelmed,” writes another. “STOP BEING GREEDY.”