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WXPR's We Live Up Here series is a home for stories that focus on the people, history, and culture that make the Northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan such a unique place to live.

We Live Up Here: Businesses Pivot To New Reality

Stormy Kromer Facebook

Instead of making its iconic Stormy Kromer hats, Ironwood-based Jacquart Fabrics is now making hospital masks and gowns.  Near Antigo, wildlife rehabilitators don’t have the luxury of staying away from work.  In this edition of We Live Up Here, we explore how COVID-19 has changed the landscape of businesses in our area.

Just several weeks ago, things could not have been going better for Bob Jacquart, CEO of Jacquart Fabrics and Stormy Kromer in Ironwood, Michigan. His 100 or so employees were making thousands of Stormy Kromer caps along with a variety of other contracted sewing items.

Then COVID-19 hit. Jacquart sent all but a few of his employees home. But a few days ago, life pivoted again. According to Jacquart, the company was contacted on Saturday morning by a health system official in the State of Wisconsin, and now they “have a large order for facemasks.”

With Jacquart participating by video, seven members of his team went into the factory this past Saturday to build a prototype of the masks. On Sunday, his son-in-law got in his car, started driving and met the costumer halfway.  The customer approved of the product design and, according to Jacquart, “we are about to start manufacturing for them.”

This company, known for producing its iconic caps, will shift to becoming a manufacturer of medical equipment.

That single hospital order will give them only about a week and a half worth of work, but they could make many more. They are not only capable of making about 5,000 masks per day, but they have also designed hospital gown prototype that they could be into production immediately.

The good thing in the making of masks and gowns, according to Jacquart, “is the equipment that we use for Stormy Kromer is exactly the same. We don’t need to buy any equipment.”

Even so, some of the logistics are a special challenge for Jacquart. Restrictions after some recent travel means that he is not even at his factory.  

“Now I am on a 14-day quarantine in my home,” he said. “Trying to run my company from afar. It is really interesting.”

Both Jacquart and his daughter and co-CEO, Gina Thorsen, who is also under self-quarantine, are now spending their time trying to find out if there is a market for these items. If so, they hope they can get most of their workforce back to the factory.

It is, as Jacquart notes, an unusual time that requires great flexibility. In his words, “We will get through this.”

The Raptor Education Group, southwest of Antigo, is also seeing some significant changes as a result of COVID-19 and the restrictions on travel. REGI Director Marge Gibson said that the group has not laid off staff because they have over 200 injured or sick birds to take care of.

Credit Jim Skibo
Marge Gibson at the Raptor Education Group in Antigo.

“We are considered essential workers,” according to Gibson, “along with zookeepers and anyone who has to keep animals that are in captive fed.”

The educational wing of their organization that visits schools or gives tours is not operating. Those staff members are either working from home and using social media to continue their educational mission, or they are helping in the clinic. Gibson notes that they are still getting calls from the public, still responding to emergencies, and still accepting patients.

“Volume of birds coming in has remained the same,” Gibson said.

Our interview took place on the day that Gov. Tony Evers announced the travel restrictions, which Gibson does think will make it more difficult to rescue sick or injured birds because most of the people who make the rescues are retired volunteers.

“Patients come from such a wide range of northern Wisconsin and even central Wisconsin that it would be difficult to have our own people working as short as we are try to rescue something,” Gibson said.

Gibson recommends, however, that if you find an injured bird, try to get the bird safe and to give them a call.

Because Gibson is most concerned with the health and safety of their volunteers, staff and community members, they will treat each call on a case-by-case basis. Even though there is a chance that some birds will not be rescued during period of travel restriction, she does, nonetheless, think that there may be something positive that comes out of this ordeal.

“One thing that I hope comes out of this is that people are more aware of their neighbors, friends and their family,” she said.

Bob Jacquart shares this sentiment.

“I wish everyone who is listening good luck too,” Jacquart said. “Let’s get through this together and stay safe.”

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He then contributed with periodic stories until 2024. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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