As a small-business owner, Doug Dolter is well acquainted with the law of supply and demand.
But he has never before seen the dynamic unfold in such an extreme and urgent manner.
In recent weeks, Dolter has encountered a steady stream of local businesses and individuals pleading for protective face masks. A patchwork coalition of local companies, nonprofit organizations and volunteers has joined forces to meet that demand.
Dolter’s business, Dubuque Mattress Factory, has led the charge to meet a key safety need amid the continued spread of COVID-19.
On March 22, Dolter and his employees began manufacturing masks. They completed 300 on their first day.
In the weeks that have followed, that small-time operation has evolved into a finely tuned machine, pumping out protective masks.
The business has now distributed more than 10,000 throughout the area, according to Dolter.
The masks are not intended to protect health care workers dealing directly with COVID-19 patients. However, they can offer a degree of protection to other area workers, first responders and individuals.
Dolter is pleased to see the makeshift operation having a positive impact. However, he knows there is work left to be done.
“You feel the weight on your shoulders,” he said. “People are calling me because they have no other options. When we started, I knew this problem was big. It is even bigger than I realized.”
Like so many other local businesses, Dubuque Mattress ceased its typical operations in March after a series of state mandates intended to promote social distancing.
Dolter decided to produce masks after learning that many area fire departments lacked an adequate supply. He and his staff swiftly transformed the facility at 2794 University Ave. and got to work sewing masks.
Dolter estimated he already has invested about $20,000 to create these masks, the vast majority of which was spent on fabric.
The initiative truly hit its stride when others began offering their support.
Joann fabric store recently donated 200 yards of fabric to support the initiative.
Members of local nonprofit Key City Creative Center have taken over a key part of the process: cutting the filters that go within the masks.
The center’s founder, Tim Hitzler, was happy to help. However, he admits he didn’t originally grasp the scope of the undertaking.
“I thought we were going to be doing this for about a day or two,” Hitzler said, with a chuckle. “Two and a half weeks later, we are still doing it.”
Volunteers at Key City have cut about 70,000 filters in the facility on White Street. They also have taken on tasks such as cutting straps for the masks and sewing.
Hitzler, who is employed as a teacher, said the project has helped occupy his time while the schools are closed.
Even more importantly, he recognizes the enormity of the moment and relishes the opportunity to be part of the solution.
“It is a need in the community, and we have the resources and the people to meet it,” he said. “We thought, ‘If not us, then who else?’”
Demand for masks further escalated last week, when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised previous recommendations and encouraged residents to wear face masks while outside.
“At that point, I knew we couldn’t keep up,” Dolter said.
Thankfully, the crew at Dubuque Mattress has been able to lean on what Dolter calls “an army of sewers.”
Dolter said about 30 local residents have volunteered to sew masks in their homes and bring them back to his business.
Dolter said he gives first priority to fire departments and nursing homes seeking protective wear. However, he also has helped multiple small businesses and local individuals get the protective wear they need.
The masks are given away for free, with recipients given the option of donating funds if they desire.
Cascade, Iowa, Fire Chief Denny Green said he recently picked up 25 protective masks for his volunteer department. Such protection is critical to firefighters, who sometimes cannot comply with social distancing recommendations that require 6 feet of separation.
“If we are caring for a patient or sitting in a truck together, it is so important for us to have those masks,” Green said. “The last thing we want is for everyone in the department to get sick.”
To Green, the efforts of Dubuque Mattress and its growing supporting cast say a lot about how the region is responding to the current crisis.
“There are a lot of people and a lot of businesses in the community that are stepping up and helping,” he said. “I can’t say it surprises me. That is the way people are here.”