Local businesses and community rally together to help those in need amidst COVID-19.
“It’s been amazing to be able to hand people masks, pray over them and thank them for being the heroes,” said Brian Morgan, co-founder of Austin’s Couch Potatoes. “We’ve got so many brave men and women on the front lines, and if this is our little part to help them, we will keep going until our business has dissolved or whatever it is, because this is crisis mode. And I believe every one of our individuals that work with us are committed to that same cause.”
A year and a half ago, the owners of Austin’s Couch Potatoes didn’t even know how to sew. However, as the coronavirus hit Austin and the growing need for personal protective equipment grew, Morgan and his coworkers at Austin’s Couch Potatoes knew they needed to do something.
Now, producing over 400 masks an hour and 6,000 gowns a day with the help of volunteers around Austin, Morgan said this is something he never in his life expected to be doing.
During a time of complete uncertainty, one thing is clear. People are in need. As the world was flipped upside-down due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, many business owners shut their doors to stop the spread. Others kept their doors open, giving their time and resources to make sure all people are cared for.
Morgan said the idea of mask-making started with a simple joke between him and his brother. The next thing they knew, they were searching their warehouse for material to make masks, creating prototypes and heading to Office Depot for rubber bands as ear pieces.
“We started cutting mass mask templates using a white material we had a couple rolls of,” Morgan said. “We searched the manufacturer’s website, and it said the material is called nonwoven polypropylene, and it is the same fabric used in medical masks. Usually, we use it to make the inside of the pillow casing that goes inside of the sofas.”
After a full day of making masks, Morgan put a post up on social media.
“Within 30 minutes I had 20 earth-shattering requests describing how desperately they needed masks,” he said. “And I just said, ‘This is getting bigger than me. We’re just a bunch of furniture guys,’ and I just cried and said, ‘Well, God, I don’t know what to do, but the need is the call, and we will keep our doors open.’”
On Sunday, March 22, Morgan got a call from the Department of Homeland Security, emergency medical systems. They were asked to come down to the emergency task force center. After testing the masks, Morgan said they were asked to shift their focus from masks to long-sleeve hospital gowns.
“Since we’ve had to shift our gears, if you walk into our factory right now, the entire factory that was building sofas and chairs, all that is pushed all the way over,” Morgan said. “We’ve just made a mess of everything. We organized it out to this beautiful factory floor.”
With the help of a team of volunteers and engineers from Continental Automotive in Seguin, Morgan said their goal is to make 1,500 masks and 6,000 gowns a day. Morgan said seeing all these people come together is the most amazing sight.
“I’m not privileged to ever have done this in my life, and it’s nothing I’ve done,” Morgan said. “It’s all the unsung heroes behind those sewing machines using their talents in ways they never knew. They could have sat at home and relied mainly on this stimulus package, but they’re coming in, putting their lives at risk every day to make masks and gowns.”
Along with Austin’s Couch Potatoes, restaurants are helping the community in a different way. As unemployment rises to a historical number, many restaurants such as Crema Bakery & Cafe and Tso Chinese Delivery are offering free meals to those in need.
Vic and Al’s is a new restaurant that was set to open earlier this year. However, when owner Nic Patrizi realized they would not be able to open on the day they originally planned, Terra Stahlbaum, beverage director for Vic and Al’s, had an idea to create a community kitchen.
“I began thinking about all my friends in the service industry, and I was really worried about those who were getting laid off, and that’s so scary when you might not know where the next meal is coming from,” said Stahlbaum. “I really just wanted to do what I could to help them.”
While the community kitchen was originally planned for service industry workers, there are no rules or restrictions on who can come, and from its start in late March, Stahlbaum said the response was overwhelming.
Open from Tuesday through Saturday, the restaurant committed to free lunches from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the month of April to every person who signed up for a 15-minute time slot. Stahlbaum said that number equaled serving about 48 meals a day.
“One of our main goals and why we’re doing this is to obviously offer free food to anyone that may need it, but then also to still have this sense of normalcy,” Stahlbaum said. “People in the service industry are used to social interaction, so they still get to see a smiling face, and it has also helped us stay sane by getting to interact with customers at a safe distance.”
For businesses that have stayed open, owner of the store Rocket Banners, David Zuefeldt, said because of the cancellation of South by Southwest, he had excess banner material and decided to make “open for business” signs.
“I have some friends in the restaurant business, and the thought occurred to me, ‘They will need banners,’ so I just started making banners,” said Zuefeldt. “We got a really good response from a lot of businesses, so I just kept making them.”
Setting a box outside his store for anyone to drive by and grab for free, Zuefeldt, along with another colleague Jim Bauman, worked together to print and provide over 500 signs to different businesses from Chinese restaurants to coffee shops all over Austin.
“Most of my customers are local businesses, so if I’m able to help, I am more than happy to, and we seem to be able to,” said Zuefeldt. “We have the supplies and the machines to do it. So, it’s easy for me. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t do it.”
However, making a sacrifice to help lift a burden comes with a cost.
In addition to putting in lots of money to make equipment for first responders, hospital workers and nurses, Morgan said it can be scary.
“Every night we work ourselves from 7 a.m. to about 7 or 8 p.m.,” Morgan said. “I have three little kids, and I am afraid I am going to bring something home. I missed my son’s second birthday. Every day there’s been a new challenge, and every day I just have to come to God. I don’t know how, but you can figure it out, and now people from all over the city are wanting to help, too.”
If you would like to help in the fight against coronavirus, here are a few links to help you get connected:
Austin’s Couch Potatoes needs help funding supplies. Those looking to help, please see GoFundMe.
If you would like to help in the making of masks and have access to a functional sewing machine and thread, sign up here, and a trained volunteer will drop off a kit with materials and an instructional video digital link that explains the mask-sewing process. Austin’s Couch Potatoes will arrange pickup and sanitation once complete.