Starbucks partners use empty café as mask sewing station

Beverly, Mass. – Heather Staples, a 14-year Starbucks partner, manages a store about a mile down the road from the hospital where her wife, brother and sister-in-law work.

Last week, someone there suggested her brother, an operating nurse, bring a bandanna to protect his face because there weren’t enough masks to go around. When Staples heard this, her stomach dropped.

“It's a horrible position for medical workers to be in, and a horrible situation we're in right now with the virus,” she said. “I felt really helpless. I think a lot of us feel really helpless right now. So, I just thought, ‘What's one thing that I could do right now that might make a difference?’”

Masks. She would sew face masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that in the absence of medical facemasks, homemade ones could be used as a last resort in caring for patients, ideally in combination with a face shield. While far from ideal, during the shortage of medical masks some hospitals are issuing video directions or patterns, along with requests for them to be donated.

Staples downloaded patterns from the internet and started a Facebook page to enlist help across the city (it’s now at more than 400 members). She hauled her sewing machine, ironing board, fabric, elastic and other supplies into one corner of her temporarily closed Starbucks café and got sewing. Well, sewing when she wasn’t working. The drive thru at her store is still open, and it’s a busy one.

“We wanted to do everything we could to stay open because we are right next to the hospital, and we have tons of first responders and hospital staff that come through the drive through all the time,” Staples said. “The partners are -- you know, morale is really high. We're really excited to be here for the community.”

About half of her regular team have chosen to stay home on paid leave, and the rest are making it work. Many of her store partners are sewing, too.

“Before shifts, after shifts, on breaks – we’re just trying to get as many masks out as we possibly can,” Staples said. The partners have made about 45 in the last four days, and the community has made more than 600. (Starbucks partners may also now buy or make their own masks and wear them to work in the store, if they wish.)

The store has also become a "command central" for community drop-offs and donations. The team is packaging the masks – both regular and ones designed to fit over an N95 respirator to help prolong the life of it – into care packages with coffee travelers, snacks donated from Starbucks and others in the city, Starbucks Via Instant Coffee and notes she’s collected from children in the community thanking health care workers.

“We sent out four different care packages this morning, and all day I was getting messages from nurses,” Staples said. “One of them said, ‘You know, there were so many happy tears on the floor today. We just really felt like someone finally cares.’ Which broke my heart. But I think a lot of nurses and doctors feel like they've kind of being thrown into a war they're not really prepared for, and one they're not being given the tools they need to fight appropriately. It’s definitely made my heart grow 10 sizes just to see how the community has come together to support our healthcare professionals. We want to do whatever we can do to help them feel supported, loved and appreciated.”

She paused.

“Somebody told me today, ‘Worst case scenario, everyone across the country sews masks and we don’t end up needing them and at the end of all this, we have a million little dog sweaters,’” Staples said, laughing. “But best-case scenario, we actually make something our doctors and nurses can use.”