Wigle Whiskey and hand sanitizer. Photo courtesy of Wigle Whiskey.

In the past few weeks, Meredith Meyer Grelli of Wigle Whiskey has found herself besieged with thousands of requests for hand sanitizer, coming from all angles.

So Wigle Whiskey, the much-awarded Strip District-based distiller, is now making hand sanitizer, exclusively for Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Safety.

They’re one of several companies with local ties lending their skills and resources toward addressing some aspect of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We now have two full-time people as well as myself responding to requests,” says Grelli. “The need seems extraordinary — it’s sort of mind-boggling. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) reached out to us and asked. Frankly, it’s a little bit disheartening and scary how many people are feeling so desperate that they’re reaching out to a smaller distillery in Pittsburgh to get a hold of a basic thing like hand sanitizer.”

The idea began with distillers on the West Coast and industry trade groups sent information about protocols and requirements for producing sanitizer, says Grelli. “A lot of distilleries sprung right into action. We got emails from trade organizations a week and a half ago and started working on it immediately.”

They reached out to the mayor’s office, who put them in touch with the city’s Department of Public Safety.

“We started talking to them because we didn’t want to be in the position of distributing this ourselves,” says Alex Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey. “How do you choose between one EMS company versus a different township fire station. We didn’t want to be in that position. We make whiskey; we don’t distribute healthcare supplies.”

“We are packaging our own sanitizers in eight-ounce containers so they’re larger and designed to go into ambulances and fire trucks. The city will be distributing those to first responders throughout the city and Allegheny County — so it’s not just the city.”

A regulatory hurdle just appeared on Friday, making this effort extra difficult. The FDA said it was necessary to take the additional step of making it so bitter that no one would want to drink it,” says Meredith Grelli. While they fight to overturn that decision, they have ordered bittering agents.

Wigle is also still making whiskey and working through online orders, with pickup at their Strip District distillery and shipping throughout PA. They just won 20 awards, more than any other distillery in the US, at the virtual American Craft Spirits Association Awards Ceremony.

Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, maker of Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka, is also making hand sanitizer, along with a coalition that includes the Pennsylvania Distillers guild, and other distillers across the state.

Graphic courtesy of OurStreets Supplies.

OurStreets to OurStreets Supplies

A few weeks ago, Mark Sussman was working on an app called OurStreets that enables users to crowd-source reporting dangerous driving behavior. Pittsburgh was one of its first focus cities.

Since the world has changed, Sussman’s company is shifting the focus of the app entirely to OurStreets Supplies, to crowd-source information about the availability of groceries and essential supplies at stores. The idea is to get a working, real-time inventory of essential products at retailers — fresh produce, soap, toilet paper — so people can limit the number of trips to the store and limit their potential exposure to COVID-19. This week, the app will go live in its new form.

“There’s a lot of hoarding going on,” says Sussman. “A lot of inventory is very low. It’s not that these items are not available, it’s that people don’t know where to go to get them.”

OurStreets Supplies wants to be that source. To do that, of course, they need users so they can be the Yelp of grocery store inventory.

Users will be asked to select what they’re shopping for, and snap a photo of what they find on the shelves. Then, they report whether it’s fully stocked, sold out, or something in between. They’ll also be asked to click on which store they’re in, and to note whether people are practicing safe social distancing.

Sussman says they’re also planning to work with retailers directly through a partnership with Data Society. “They’re going to be ingesting inventory data that’s available from all these retailers, and kind of matching that to the crowd-sourcing data that we’re getting from our users so that we can provide information both from retailers and from shoppers as to what’s available.”

He notes that each of these retailers uses different systems, so it’s going to be a Herculean task to make that work from the inventory side.

So far, they’ve gotten a small chain in D.C. on board. They’re leveraging that connection to get to bigger grocers like Safeway and Whole Foods. They also want to work directly with Giant Eagle, says Sussman.

“Retailers are at the front lines of this, just like healthcare workers,” notes Sussman. “We need them to be focused on making sure the supply chain is intact, keeping their employees safe, and ensuring folks know what’s on the shelves and what’s not.”

More hand sanitizer

The need is so great for hand sanitizer that anyone who can make it, should.

Harmar-based Thar Process makes CO2 extraction and purification technologies. They’ve started making travel-size and bulk 32-ounce hemp hand sanitizer, from organic ethyl alcohol and hemp extract, which has anti-inflammatory properties.

The plan is to distribute it to front line medical workers and public safety officials, but the first recipient is the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side.

All supplies related to sanitization and protective equipment are in short supply,” says Thar’s President Todd Palcic, who lives nearby in the Mexican War Streets. “And where there is supply, many companies or so-called middlemen have increased prices. While washing hands is always most effective, homeless people don’t always have access to sinks.”

Face masks

The need for face masks is particularly acute right now. A lot of people are volunteering their skills to help supply them, like Operation Face Mask Pittsburgh and Mask Makers PGH.

Abram’s Nation is one local company that’s trying to help fill the gap. The Pittsburgh-based maker of The Safety Sleeper and other products for special needs families is creating templates and supplies for those with sewing machines to make face masks. Volunteers are being asked to sew the masks and return them to the company’s headquarters in Gibsonia, to be finished with binding. NEXTpittsburgh profiled their efforts here.

Day Owl Face Shield.

Backpacks to face shields

The Homewood-based backpack maker Day Owl has quickly turned its backpack factory into an assembly line for 50,000 medical-grade face shields, to add another layer of protection for healthcare workers in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

They are worn over the N95 masks, which have been in such short supply. Without a face shield, the masks must be discarded after every patient interaction. The shields allow them to last longer.

Highmark has purchased 30,000 face shields to distribute to nurses, doctors and healthcare workers with the Allegheny Health Network. The project is supported by The Heinz Endowments, Henry L. Hillman Foundation and Richard King Mellon Foundation.

The Day Owl team rushed to source 30,000 square feet of plastic from California, and 11 miles of elastic from North Carolina. The face shield was designed quickly by the Pittsburgh nonprofit makerspace Protohaven.

“That’s almost an elastic half-marathon,” says Day Owl founder Ian Rosenberger. “I believe it was about to become underwear when we rescued it.”

Ten workers, mostly from Homewood, are working on the project.

“It feels great knowing that we can partake in assembling a product that will help people in the medical fields, public service and even civilians who spend their days helping others,” said Brenda Joy Ponti of Homewood, a Day Owl stitcher.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife,...