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Businesses Gear Up to Help in Fight Against COVID-19

from distillers to mustard makers, Valley businesses join the effort

Distilling equipment at Chippewa River Distillery in Chippewa Falls. (Source: Facebook)
Distilling equipment at Chippewa River Distillery in Chippewa Falls. (Source: Facebook)

Though he’s been gone for nearly two decades, the words of children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers still ring true in times of crisis: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

That sentiment is comforting, but it’s also inspiring: In times like this, all of us can be helpers in our own way.

Consider how businesses large and small are pivoting to address the impact of a frightening, worldwide pandemic by creatively using the tools at hand. Just like major manufacturers such as U.S. Rubber and National Presto Industries retooled during World War II, Chippewa Valley businesses are now adapting to tackle a potentially deadly virus.

“The new type of ammunition in this war is ventilators, face masks, and hand sanitizer,” said Eric Rygg, president of Eau Claire-based Silver Spring Foods Inc. While Silver Spring is known for producing and packaging horseradish, mustard, and other food products, as the coronavirus crisis emerged, company officials began to explore ways they could contribute to the COVID-19 fight. They quickly realized that they weren’t in a position to easily produce hand sanitizer, but they did have something that could help meet the nationwide shortage of the germ-killing product: packaging. In fact, they had more than 100,000 squeeze bottles in storage that could quickly be sent to companies that were manufacturing sanitizer.

“The new type of ammunition in this war is ventilators, face masks, and hand sanitizer,” said Eric Rygg, president of Eau Claire-based Silver Spring Foods Inc.

Enter two Chippewa Falls businesses whose typical products are meant to be enjoyed with friends, not rubbed on your hands to destroy viruses: the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. and Chippewa River Distilling. Unlike Silver Spring, Chippewa River Distilling is well-suited to produce the high-proof alcohol that is the key ingredient in hand sanitizer. The distiller was already working with Leinenkugel’s, which donated 165 barrels of bulk Summer Shandy beer to be distilled into the pharmaceutical-grade ethanol used in hand sanitizer. The ethanol will then be combined with other ingredients — including glycerin, hydrogen peroxide, and distilled water — to create a final product that will be packaged in bottles donated by Silver Spring and distributed to first responders and healthcare workers.

Dick Leinenkugel, president and chief beer merchant at the brewery that bears his family’s name, said he hopes Leinenkugel’s can continue to help in the anti-COVID effort. “We would encourage all of our local businesses in the greater Chippewa Valley to purchase takeout meals and gift cards from our bars, taverns, and restaurants to help them out during this difficult time,” he added.

In addition to helping Chippewa River Distilling, Silver Spring has provided bottles to Timekeeper Distillery in Wausau, which is also producing sanitizer but lacked appropriate packaging. And with the help of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., Silver Spring has networked with Medline Industries, a major healthcare manufacturer, and may provide them with packaging as well.

“We felt this is a good way we can help,” Silver Spring’s Rygg said. “There’s others that are making this (sanitizer) and they have the right permits, and we want to make sure the product is made properly.”

Amid it all, Rygg said orders for Silver Spring products have been rising. “I’m not sure if horseradish is on the emergency list along with toilet paper and Clorox wipes,” Rygg said. He speculated that the increased demand was likely due to people buying more groceries because they are cooking meals at home.Meanwhile, like other companies in the food supply chain, Silver Spring continues to make and package its normal products, while increasing cleanliness protocols and making other efforts to reduce contact among its staff by staggering shifts and having employees work from home if possible.

MAKING AND DONATING MASKS

Numerous other businesses and individuals are also stepping up to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the regional businesses making donations to mitigate the public health crisis is Xcel Energy, which announced March 27 that it is donating 20,000 protective surgical masks. Half of the masks will go to the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, while the other half will go to La Crosse County Emergency Management.“

Xcel Energy is committed to our communities and doing our part to keep the places where we live and work safe and healthy,” said Mark Stoering, president of Xcel Energy-Wisconsin. “We have been engaged with our local emergency management teams and this donation of surgical masks supports Gov. (Tony) Evers’ personal protection equipment initiative as one way we can help safeguard medical professionals and support our communities’ response to the global pandemic. Our health care workers and first responders are serving on the front lines and deserve our debt of gratitude for all the work they are doing.”

The state initiative, which Evers announced March 26, is aimed at getting more personal protective gear in the hand (and over the faces) of the health-care providers who need it. The state has created a website to receive donations or to buy back large supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 respirators, gloves, masks, and surgical gowns. Learn more at covid19supplies.wi.gov/Donations.