How the Outdoor Industry Responded to Coronavirus

Like Angler’s Covey, Outdoor Research saw its world upended almost overnight, and the company responded by tacking aggressively into the heavy seas. I wanted to see what that process looked like, and hear what lessons it held.

It was a blustery morning when I arrived from my home in eastern Washington and drove through the ghostly streets of Seattle. OR occupies the same spot it has for decades, a scuffed, white, seven-story building that sits beside railroad tracks in the industrial SoDo neighborhood, the bottom floor ringed by loading bays. A modest OR retail store facing the street was closed. An overly optimistic sign read: Open May 8.

I was met at the door by Jason Duncan, an executive at the company. He sprayed my hands with sanitizer made by a distillery down the street. He took my temperature. He asked questions about my health and possible exposure—in English, which is one of at least nine languages spoken at OR, including Cantonese and Spanish.

He sprayed my hands again and asked if I needed a new mask. Then we went upstairs, where he pointed out the increased spacing between workers and explained that they now eat lunch in small waves at their stations. OR employees were discouraged from using public transit, so the company had teamed up with Starbucks—whose corporate headquarters is nearby—to use its shuttles.

As Duncan and I talked, a woman approached in a mask and sprayed our hands again. This is done hourly, Duncan said, because it’s important for employees to feel safe. “We have this great quote that we often use here, that factories run on emotion, not electricity.”

When I visited, 110 people were at work on two floors, cutting and sewing. The factory shuts down for a week to mark Chinese New Year, which in 2020 fell on January 25. Employees returned from their break with stories shared by friends and relatives back in China about how bad COVID-19 was getting. By early February, OR executives began meeting daily to talk about the disease’s growing threat, discussing what they should do to ensure worker safety in the company’s two U.S. factories—the one in Seattle and a new one in El Monte, near L.A. By the end of February, OR had stopped all business travel, including trips to South Korea, home of the company’s majority owner, Youngone Corporation.

“We stopped things really early,” Duncan said. “And we all felt like, Wow, are we being paranoid? Are we being overly protective?”

By the end of the first week of March, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had topped 100 in Washington, and the Seattle area had become the country’s first epicenter. Some of the area’s largest companies began to urge employees to work from home. Schools closed, then libraries. By the end of the month, Governor Jay Inslee had issued a statewide stay-at-home order, closing all nonessential businesses.

On March 12, OR closed its Seattle office and factory for two weeks and paid its staff and workers to stay home. It also closed its El Monte factory for a month. Meanwhile, nationwide it was becoming frighteningly apparent how little personal protective equipment—the masks, gowns, and face shields used by doctors and nurses—was readily available. Poor emergency planning for a pandemic, coupled with years of reliance on China and other countries for imports of such gear, left people begging for protection.

With these issues in mind, OR execs asked themselves: What can we do to help the community? Making PPE seemed like an obvious choice. “We’re getting our asses kicked by this virus,” Duncan recalled thinking. “And we have an ability to sew and make masks. And we have textile and engineering knowledge in-house.”

Duncan and I stepped into a yawning freight elevator spray-painted with yellow dots, six feet apart, to remind workers to keep their distance. In normal times, he said, entering an entirely new area of manufacturing “would have been a six-month decision.” But the PPE shift took about 48 hours. “We saw a need, and we jumped into the pool without doing the business case,” Duncan said.

We stepped out onto a clattering factory floor. In front of us, men cut patterns. On another floor, numerous women sat spaced apart, operating sewing machines. What I saw being made was OR’s Resolute cloth mask, used by the Department of Defense. The sophisticated design features an interchangeable filter cartridge; the company had made around 300,000 already.

OR was better positioned to reboot than many outdoor companies, in part because of its experience supplying the military. Figuring out how to run a factory floor during a pandemic was another matter. By nature, such places aren’t conducive to social distancing, and many of OR’s longtime garment-makers are in their fifties and sixties, rendering them more vulnerable to COVID-19. How do you keep everybody safe?

Not easily, as it turns out. When the Seattle factory closed in March, managers put together a safety protocol for how workers would move throughout the day. Then a group of managers donned masks and did a test run while Duncan filmed it. “We broke about three or four of the protocols right off the bat,” he said. They kept working on it, and results have been good: as of early June, Duncan said, there had been no recorded cases of COVID-19 among employees.

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