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New Balance Factory Switches To Making Masks: 'We Are Well Known For Fit'

BOSTON (CBS) --As much of the country is shut down because of the coronavirus crisis, a New Balance factory in Lawrence is still in operation. There's a big difference in what they're making, though. Instead of shoes, they're making masks.

New Balance Executive Vice President of Value Chain Dave Wheeler said local hospitals started to ask for the help because New Balance has five factories in New England. The company got to work on a prototype for a general-use mask in late March. "We are well known for fit on our footwear, so that was a natural capability that we brought to the table."

Wheeler said the company got advice from staff at Massachusetts General Hospital on how the masks should fit and consulted with MIT on which fabrics to use. "Understanding how it fits on a face is a different situation that we weren't used to," he said.

The factory in Lawrence usually employs around 200 people, and right now a small dedicated group is working to make the masks. Those employees would not be working at all if the masks weren't being produced.

"It has been deemed as essential production at this point. Footwear isn't," said Wheeler, "so the rest of our production lines are actually idled at the moment."

The New Balance factory in Lawrence is making masks (WBZ-TV)

According to Wheeler, the Lawrence factory and another in Maine have the capability of producing 100,000 masks per week.

The masks are made of five layers of fabric, about half are normally used on shoes. "It appears to be one layer of fabric," says Wheeler, "but it's actually a really complex composition of fabric."

The remaining materials, which are used for filtration, had to be ordered from New Balance suppliers around the country.

"We needed to make sure that we had the right filtration capability for the masks," says Wheeler, "that was a new adventure."

Getting the factory and employees ready to make an entirely different product was also a challenge. "The short turnaround wouldn't allow for new skill training, new equipment deliveries, new materials."

Wheeler said they also had to be mindful of social distancing within the factory. He said, "It was a whole new approach for us. We had to create that separation between pieces of equipment and work stations."

As of right now, this first generation of masks is not approved for medical workers on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis, but Wheeler said that's the goal in the near future. "We're focused on upgraded filtration capabilities, FDA approvals, a lot of the things that really take months to achieve, we're trying to do in a relatively short period of time."

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