New York City has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. As of this morning, there has been a reported 52,318 cases and over 720 COVID-related deaths in the state of New York.
As these numbers rise, local hospitals and clinics are facing shortages of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPEs) like gowns and gloves, with slow relief efforts from the federal government. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would give state funding to individuals and businesses that could make PPEs for health care workers, and since then, a growing number of passionate volunteers are rising up to join the fight.
The Broadway Relief Project has united Broadway seamstresses, actors, and other people in the community to meet the need for 10 million surgical gowns the local government had requested earlier this week. In a matter of days, the project has recruited over 600 eager volunteers.
Leading the charge is Javier Munoz, who shot to superstardom in Broadway's Hamilton. As the central point of contact, Munoz says after hearing Gov. Cuomo's address on the incredible need for PPEs, he felt called to organize and mobilize.
"I got on calls and found so many people ready to participate and volunteer," says Munoz, a gay man living with HIV, cancer survivor, and a staunch activist. "There were so many people who were already trying to implement their own efforts, and so instead of having five, six, seven efforts going at the same time, [I thought], Why don't we all join together and make one Broadway effort? One big umbrella to house all of us and do it together."
Jeff Whiting, owner of Open Jar Studios in midtown Manhattan, joined the efforts by donating his theatrical studio space as the project's central manufacturing facility. According to Broadway News, he is working with the city to negotiate an official contract so that manufacturing can begin immediately. That contract will allow them to obtain materials and to pay volunteers for their work.
Molly Braverman, director of Broadway Green Alliance, an industry-wide initiative encouraging the theater community to implement environmentally friendlier practices by repurposing unused materials from Broadway theaters, among other practices, has stepped in to help with fabric donations and transferring materials.
"I kept thinking we've got such a resource here and I know we have a resource of fabrics and materials," Munoz explains. "The question is: How do we organize this and make sure we can securely and safely get materials to people and finished products to where they need to be to donated to the department of health, the city, state, whatever is needed? It's a lot of organization, but this is what we do as a Broadway community. We organize, we answer the call, and we're always ready."
Earlier this month, Gov. Cuomo announced that Broadway theaters will be closing its doors through April 12. Ongoing efforts, like Rosie O'Donnell's recent benefit that raised over $600,000 for The Actor's Fund to provide assistance for those needing help, have been made to help the many theater professionals out of work.
Munoz, Whiting, and Braverman have become the top organizers of the Broadway Relief Project, alongside Bruce Barish, who runs Ernest Winzer Cleaners, a dry cleaning business catering to Broadway shows.
Barish has been supplying drivers and vans, and since dry cleaners are considered to be an "essential business," the company is allowed to stay open amid the state's stay-at-home order mandating temporary closures of non-essential businesses.
"We are on the ball here trying to provide support," Munoz says. "All of the PPEs being manufactured directly from Cuomo's office, these are not endless resources, these are limited resources. We need manufacturing to happen. We got the green light from the city. We're just waiting for the last piece of the puzzle."
That piece, Munoz says, is the "officially-approved specification" of the gowns themselves. Once that pattern comes in, organizers will have that pattern pre-cut so they can give it to a handful of stitchers to see how long it takes them to manufacture just one gown.
From there, "We'll have solid numbers, and then we can start manufacturing them," he explains. "That should start today, that's really where we're at. Manufacturers can start today, a week later after just starting to organize. I think that's a statement to not only the incredible people in our local governments who were willing to work with us but the incredible passionate volunteers who were waiting and chomping at the bit to help -- and that's a beautiful powerful thing we've been able to organize. It's a lot of work, but it's well worth it."
Additionally, the Theatrical Wardrobe Union Local 764 has called for area laborers to volunteer their skills. Union president Patricia White told Broadway News that 764 has also been in contact with a domestic violence shelter and a senior center in the city who are in need of non-medical grade masks.
This week, the union created a Facebook group called Sew The Curve Flat, aimed to connect volunteers to help make masks nationwide for clinics and hospitals across the country in need of PPEs.
If you're in the New York City area and would like more information on how to volunteer, visit OpenJarStudios.com.