Illinois Businesses Transform To Aid COVID-19 Fight

Apr 13, 2020
Originally published on April 13, 2020 12:37 pm

A number of Illinois manufacturers have transformed their operations to join the fight against COVID-19. But one Central Illinois business is doing its part without shifting production, because it hadn’t opened yet.

Chris Ober said he was weeks from opening Black Band Distillery in Peoria when Gov. JB Pritzker issued the stay-at-home order March 21.

Ober said he felt an obligation to help.

“Before we had even started the process, we had people asking and it became overwhelmingly obvious that it was a necessity to provide,” Ober said. “Because of that, we thought we don't really even have a choice.”

Black Band is producing the sanitizer to meet World Health Organization standards at 80% ethanol content.

Ober said working the supply chain has been a challenge, particularly in finding enough industrial-size containers. Black Band is selling the sanitizer in one- and five-gallon jugs and 275-gallon totes.

The smallest size sells for $57 per jug.

Ober said he's not expecting to make money off the hand sanitizer that hospitals, municipalities, and others need.

“I had somebody ask me straight up, 'Hey, this seems expensive. How much would you charge for a gallon of whiskey?’ I said ‘Probably about $200 for a gallon whiskey.' So that puts a little bit of perspective in it.”

Ober said he plans to donate profits from hand sanitizer sales to charities hit hard by the pandemic.

Black Band produced about 2,000 gallons of hand sanitizer in its first week and could ramp up production if it can get the supplies it needs, including shipping crates. 

Family Connection

Black Band has teamed with Destihl Brewery in Normal to help distribute the hand sanitizer.

Destihl's Director of Restaurant Operations Anna Ober-Sutton is Chris’ sister.

“Since we already have a lot of distribution and we are able to reach out to an even broader group of people in an additional community, we wanted to partner with him so we could help get more out to the public and out to municipalities and hospitals and places that really need it the most,” Ober-Sutton said.

Destihl is helping the COVID-19 response while still producing and shipping beer.

“(It was) a very quick shift in focus,” she said. “We’re not taking any focus away from the other sides of our operation, but we have kicked it into the next gear of making this work.”

Destihl has laid off most of its restaurant staff as the restaurant on Towanda Avenue has shifted to curbside and delivery service.

Ober-Sutton said if the hand sanitizer sells fast, Destihl could start rehiring sooner.

Black Band Distillery is accepting orders on its Facebook page. Destihl is taking orders on its website.

‘Warlike Mentality’

Black Bank Distillery and Destihl are just two examples of businesses that have either boosted production or reprogrammed entirely to help fill vital needs during the pandemic.

One of Gov. JB Pritzker's task force leaders that's helping shift factories to help the fight against COVID-19 said manufacturers have a "warlike" mentality.

Mark Denzler, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, co-chairs the Illinois Essential Equipment Task Force. The group is looking to connect manufacturers and suppliers to bolster the supply chain for PPEs and other medical supplies.

“Every time our nation has had a major challenge or crisis, manufacturers have stepped forward,” Denzler said. “We are seeing it again today.”

Denzler pointed to clothing makers producing masks and medical gowns, metal manufacturers making emergency medical beds instead of shelving units and liquor manufacturers that are making hand sanitizer.

“Everyone has stepped up. No one has said ‘No I’m not going to help,’” he said. “Sometimes it’s an easy adjustment based on what they have already been making. Other times they are completely retooling their facilities and buying new equipment and retraining workers very quickly.

“It is an all-hands-on-deck, kind of a warlike effort, the likes that I have not seen in my career.”

Denzler co-chairs the task force with John Conrad, president and CEO of the Illinois Biotechnology Innovation Organization. The task force aims to connect manufacturers with suppliers to help bolster the supply chain and limit the need to import vital supplies from overseas.

“It shows the importance of having an American manufacturing base and supply chain in the state of Illinois,” Denzler said. “It’s much better if we can make these products at home than having to rely on supply chains around the world.”

Businesses wishing to help can take a survey on the IMA website. The site lists nearly two dozen supplies that are in demand, including ventilators, goggles and biohazard waste bags.

Denzler said the task force has also helped break down regulatory barriers, such as increasing legal truck weights by 10% on Illinois roads and waiving overweight fees for transporting emergency supplies.

The task force has also been providing reviewing products for safety and ensuring supplies meet medical standards.

Denzler detailed his organization's efforts during a webinar with Illinois Wesleyan University on Thursday.

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