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April 11, 2020 by Neil Harvey


Shelter in place” is a frequent refrain within the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s among the primary ways to avoid infection.

But that advice is not of much use, unfortunately, for those with no shelter at all.

“To say ‘stay at home’ to someone who doesn’t have a home, that really illustrates the vulnerability of homeless populations,” said Mike Rigney, vice president of operations for The Orvis Company, a clothing outfitter that maintains a 300,000 square foot call center and distribution facility in northeast Roanoke.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, as well as the increased need for masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), schools and churches and organizations and local businesses have jumped in to contribute.

Orvis is among those ranks. Rigney said his company has locked up its stores across the country, including nine in Virginia, and its local center is operating at just over half its normal staff size, but it has turned part of its Roanoke personalization department into a mask-making facility.

“We have sewing machines and we have people who are very talented at sewing,” he said last week of the workers who normally tailor pants and embroider monograms.

“Our goal… is about 300 to 400 [masks] a day. By adding embroidery machines, we’re looking to increase our production.”

The company recently donated 600 of those shields to the Roanoke Rescue Mission for its residents and others. Although those masks are only recommended for single use, the plan is to begin production this week using fabric that can be washed and reused.

“As a society, when we all wear them, we’re looking out for each other, not just for ourselves,” Rigney said. “There’s levels of collaboration out there that I didn’t think was possible, everybody just trying to do the right thing.”

Other businesses in the area are also extending beyond their normal expertise during the pandemic, including Luna, Oak Hall Cap and Gown, Precision Fabrics Group and Norfolk Southern.

But for one Salem-based manufacturer, Intergrated Textile Solutons, protective equipment is directly in line with its day job and it’s currently mixing both business and philanthropy.

ITS is a defense contractor that produces industrial, military and speciality products and apparel; the 84-year-old company, which employs 110 workers and is now seeking to hire more, and also has a location in South Boston, recently ramped up efforts to produce upwards of 50,000 surgical-style masks per week, plus thousands of isolation gowns.

“It’s such an important effort that we’re fighting right now. Our production numbers keep climbing everyday,” said David Thornhill, president and owner of ITS.

So on most Sundays now, as the pandemic unfolds, Thornill has opted to deliver donations of his company’s products to local organizations that can use them.

Last weekend he split 500 masks among the Salem Fire Department, Carilion Clinic and Richfield Living, a non-profit senior living community.

Richfield recently mandated that its teams wear PPE the entire time they’re working, according to CEO Cherie Grisso.

“We have about 600 residents on our campus and about 500 employees. Our supply channel is constrained, just as many others are,” Grisso said. “We’re going to buy some from him, too, because we have a great demand for [masks]. We were so excited to get local sourcing.”

Salem Fire Chief John Prillaman echoed that increased need — his crews wear surgical masks on every EMS call, and now also put them on every patient they treat.

“That safeties everybody,” Prillaman said. “A lot of the reasons we’re wearing them is to keep our germs from spreading as well.

“It’s nice to have a local manufacturer being able to donate supplies like that,” the chief added.

That’s not the only way the current crisis has affected Thornhill, 39. The pandemic struck directly in the middle of a two-month family visit with his wife Astrid’s parents in Panama City, he said, leaving her and his two sons, John, 3, and Lucas, 10 months, out of the United States, in a country on lockdown, with no flights in or out at least through May.

“One purpose of the trip was to help my 3-year-old learn Spanish. He’s certainly getting a lot of it now,” he joked last week.

“I don’t look at it as if they’re stuck,” Thornhill said. “I’m at peace. I know they’re safe and they’re with family.”

Total Action Against Poverty Roanoke and ITS Mask Donation Photography by Brett Winter Lemon

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