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Sudbury apparel-maker keeping industry faces covered

Mask sales spur Covergalls founder to fundraise for long-term care facilities to purchase protective wear

For a company that made its name outfitting women with protective workwear, it only made sense that, when the pandemic landed in Northern Ontario, Sudbury's Covergalls would find a role in helping protect people from the novel coronavirus.

“Our whole focus has been making sure people are properly, comfortably outfitted in protective gear,” said company founder Alicia Woods, creator of the coverall that’s specially designed for a woman’s body.

Other regional mining supply companies had been answering the call to donate their personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers, who had been facing a severe supply shortage.

But Woods wanted to have a more meaningful impact.

“We were trying to find our place in it,” she said, reflecting on the early days of the pandemic. “We could get medical-grade PPE, but if we got involved, we’d just be a link in the chain, adding cost, adding delivery, and we didn’t want to do that.”

Instead, she went back to the basics, donating fabric to local seamstresses who designed and sewed washable, reusable cotton masks, which Covergalls then gave away to people and community organizations in need.

Before long, industry players looking to meet new workplace requirements for face coverings took notice of her efforts and started inquiring about bulk orders.

Working with her Toronto-based manufacturer, Woods expanded production so that Covergalls had the ability to fill requests from large industrial customers.

Woods said she has the production capacity available in Toronto to make 2,000 masks per day with ability to double those numbers, if necessary.

Miners Vale, Glencore, and Impala have all placed orders, supplying masks to workers, their family members, and the communities in which they work. Logistics provider Manitoulin Transport was one of her first clients, while others have hailed from the automotive, construction, tourism and aviation sectors.

After a friend called her in a panic one Saturday morning wondering how to get masks for a crew of service technicians getting ready to fly out of the Greater Sudbury Airport, Woods delivered some to her door.

Not yet accustomed to the new standards requiring travellers to wear masks in flight, they had arrived at the terminal unprepared.

“I thought, wow, the Sudbury airport isn’t that close to town,” Woods said. “If people get out to the airport and check in, only to find they can’t get on the airplane because they don’t have a mask, they’re going to be upset, disappointed, stressed, and flustered.”

Since then, the airport has been stocked up with Covergalls masks near the security area so travellers who come without their own mask can still continue on their journey.

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With its most recent initiative, launched just this week, Covergalls is once again turning to help the community.

The company has designed a red “Canada Strong” mask, which retails for $15. Five dollars from the sale of every mask will be donated back to long-term care facilities for the purchase of medical-grade PPE.

It’s an idea that arose from a brainstorming session with Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré in which the two discussed what areas of the health-care sector could use the most help.

Through her research, Woods discovered that, not only are the long-term care homes severely lacking in PPE, most don’t even have the funding to purchase any.

“I kind of had a vision of, what if the nation came together to solve this issue by providing our seniors and our loved ones with proper PPE, because I think this whole pandemic has really peeled back the skin to what is really going on in our long-term care homes.”

Her fundraising efforts will begin in Ontario, where proceeds will be donated to the family councils of individual long-term care facilities, which can then purchase the needed equipment. But Woods is hopeful that Covergalls can raise enough that funds for PPE can be distributed across Canada.

As additional requirements are put in place and Canadians become more comfortable with the idea of wearing a protective mask, Woods has other projects in the works.

She’s designed versions of the mask made with lighter fabrics to reduce fogging on glasses and remain cooler in warmer weather. The company is also making children’s sizes following inquiries from daycares and day camps.

Based on current interest, and adapting to the new ways of doing business, Woods believes demand will only increase for sustainable protective equipment for the workplace.

The entrepreneur admits that her outlook might not have been so sunny at the onset of the pandemic, when work slowed and she had to reevaluate her business strategy.

But Covergalls answered the challenge, and has even seen some growth since they switched their focus to producing face masks.

“Being a small business, we have the ability to pivot quickly, and, I think, had the team not done that, we would be in a really tough position right now,” Woods said.

“But having the ability to think outside the box and get support from local companies, people who know that we’re in the PPE space, asking us, hey, what can you do to help, having access to a manufacturer in Canada, really has allowed us to do a 360.”

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Lindsay Kelly

About the Author: Lindsay Kelly

Lindsay Kelly is a Sudbury-based reporter who's worked in print and digital media for more than two decades. She joined the Northern Ontario Business newsroom in 2011
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