On Thursday afternoon, the executive director of Open Works laid off all 21 of his part-time employees as the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic took their toll.
By Saturday afternoon, the maker community gave Will Holman hope that he could hire at least some of them back in an effort to help healthcare workers on the frontline of the crisis.
With medical professionals nationwide in need of personal protection equipment, Holman identified a way to help when he saw a design online for face shields that can be made using 3D printers.
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The shields, when used in combination with a standard dust mask, provide the level of protection the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to guard against the spread of the virus.
After speaking with representatives of LifeBridge Health and Johns Hopkins, Holman posted on the social media pages of Open Works, a nonprofit maker space in Baltimore’s Greenmount West neighborhood, asking for makers with 3D printers to assist.
“We have laser cutters, we have assembling space, we have workforce we would love to reactivate,” Holman said Saturday, “but we don’t have enough 3D printers to make these at the level of demand that we’re seeing.”
Open Works has had to stop holding the classes and events that brought in money, and the stock market’s plummet led to a decrease of support from foundations, leading to the layoffs. But now Open Works should be able to rehire some of those part-time workers.
The response to the postings was so overwhelming that Holman needed to create a Google Form to better organize those who reached out. Within six hours of the original post, Open Works had nearly 100 volunteers that collectively had 250 printers, nearly 20 times the 13 the maker space had on its own.
Once Open Works has an understanding of how many shields are needed, its group will start printing, then drop off the shields at the maker space. Open Works, potentially including of those rehired part-timers, will then sterilize them, complete their assembly and package them into groups of 10. After the face shields sit for an additional two to three days to allow other potential contaminants to die, Open Works will send them to the hospitals.
For those without printers who want to help, Holman said Open Works is accepting monetary donations. The process came together so quickly, he said, that much needs to be sorted out, but any funds will help Open Works get the materials and rehire the labor to meet hospitals’ needs.
Holman was adamant this effort couldn’t have been possible without the help of grassroots makers, as well as fellow Baltimore organizations such as Made In Baltimore, BCAN and Innovation Works.
“We just are desperate for something to do to keep us, as makers, healthy and sane and contributing and feel like we’re pushing back against the tide of chaos out there, frankly,” Holman said.
“The entire premise of Open Works as an organization has been to build community, and when you take away the ability to congregate, community often goes away, too, but we’re trying to find other ways to net people together and stay resilient.”
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David Burdick, costume director for Baltimore Center Stage, became inspired to assist after reading a news story on Thursday about Oklahoma seamstresses making masks for their local hospitals. The theater connected with the head of the infectious disease department at Mercy Medical Center and the two sides began looking into potential designs for masks, approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Michael Ross, executive director for Center Stage, said the process of making masks for the hospital is similar to that of designers for a theater production.
“In our industry, what we’ve normally done,” Ross said, “is send it off to the costume designer. The designer takes a look, does a fitting on the actor and sees if that works. In this case, they cut it out, put together a prototype and send it off to the doctor at Mercy Hospital, as if they were the designer, to say it’s going to be OK.”
Representatives from Mercy could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Center Stage volunteers are working from home, using their own fabric and sewing machines to create the masks. Burdick said he is coordinating the process remotely through a group text message with at least eight people.
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“It’s certainly enlisting skills we have, things like what we know about fabric, what we know about fit and shape and creating patterns,” Burdick said.
The executive director of Nation of Makers, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit that works to advocate and increase awareness and resources for makers throughout the country, said the efforts of makers in Baltimore are similar to those happening nationwide as grassroots makers try to help however they can.
“When you look at what people make and how they make and what brought them to making, it’s a response to a problem that was in their life or a challenge in their community," Dorothy Jones-Davis said. “Right now, we’re in the midst of probably the biggest challenge that most of us have ever faced in our lives. I think when it comes down to it, when we’re in crisis, we all want to help."
Nationwide, Nation of Makers is coordinating efforts similar to those at Open Works. Jones-Davis mentioned auto manufacturers producing ventilators and sewing circles making masks. Locally, Baltimore distilleries have helped produce hand sanitizer.
Jones-Davis suggested that any makers who want to become involved reach out to the making organizations with efforts already happening. The last question of Open Works’ online questionnaire asked that only healthy makers participate, a point Jones-Davis seconded.
"We don’t want to spread infection in trying to help it,” she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Daniel Oyefusi contributed to this article.