Mary Kuiper -- like most business owners -- watched her Downers Grove-based apparel and souvenir business grind to a halt as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the globe last spring, leading to a shutdown of the economy. The demand for Raindrops Resort's line of T-shirts, hoodies, crew socks and other items vanished as the virus spread.
But an early morning TV news story Kuiper watched about a woman sewing face masks gave her an idea.
"She said 'it used to take me 15 minutes to sew one and now I've got it down to 12 minutes,' and I was like, 'oh my god, we can do so much better than that," the president of Raindrops Resort's parent company, Dee Givens & Co., said. "I knew we could do it better, we could do it quicker and faster."
Within a couple of weeks, she designed a new product -- a lightweight, reusable and antimicrobial mask called Cool Shields -- and pivoted her Downers Grove factory to begin producing it.
No only did the business get going again, but now is running in high gear as it works to meet increasing demand.
"We went from an almost certain shutdown to the busiest we've ever been," Kuiper said.
Cool Shields are unique because the inner layer is made of an antimicrobial fabric that can stop most pathogens, she notes. Since the fabric is designed for sportswear, it's also comfortable and moisture-wicking.
While Kuiper said she knew of the pandemic's threat through a supplier in China back in January, she never expected its impact to reach the U.S. But once the shutdown occurred here, she knew immediately masks were the way to go.
In March, the Centers for Disease Control did not recommend wearing face masks, but Kuiper said that didn't seem right since people in Asia have been using masks for decades as a preventive measure against anything from preventing virus spread to filtering air pollution.
"I knew if they weren't doing any good, there wouldn't be a billion people already out there wearing them," she said.
Once the company released the Cool Shields in late March, they sold instantly, primarily through word-of-mouth.
"On day Number 2, we had an order in for 200 pieces, through strictly word-of-mouth," she said, adding even a UPS driver who they gave a mask to "brought in two or three clients just by wearing one."
The company has sold more than 100,000 masks since March and is expanding to meet continued demand. She's adding more people to her staff of 15, as well as additional equipment, to keep up with demand that has dominated the work in her factory.
"We're constantly making changes to increase production," she said.
In addition to the Cool Shields' inner layer, the outer layer is made of a lightweight fabric that can be printed with designs or company logos, which adds a flair of fashion to the mask.
That customization is important, as Kuiper sees face masks eventually becoming a common piece of apparel in the U.S., like it is in Asia. People here are becoming increasingly wary about the spread of viruses and other health concerns, especially when traveling in proximity with others on trains and airplanes.
"I believe that they will become a staple in wardrobes, like a pair of socks," she said. "Most people can't get by on one. They really need three or four, because you've always got one in the laundry, one in the car, and one in your handbag.
"Face masks have been worn in Asian countries for literally decades. It wasn't here in our culture, but it is now."