At this Milwaukee factory, orders for hospital wipes are up—as are daily temperature checks
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At 6 a.m. on Tuesday, March 24, Julie Graverson stood behind a plexiglass barrier to monitor each employee at Sellars Absorbent Materials as they got their temperature taken.
So far during the coronavirus crisis, none of the 250 employees at the Milwaukee-based manufacturer of shop towels, disposable wipers, toilet tissue, and other paper products has had to be sent home for having a temperature over 100 degrees.
After the first shift was cleared for work, Graverson, vice president of operations, supervised the taping-off of areas on the manufacturing floor, in the break room, and other places—an effort to ensure that the workers stay six feet apart.
When Graverson arrived home after work, she went first into the laundry room, left her clothes there, cleaned up a bit, donned a robe and then showered—all in hopes of not “contaminating” anything inside her home.
That no Sellars employee has yet tested positive for COVID-19 can be attributed at least in part to those steps and others taken by Tom Sellars, chairman and CEO of the 35-year-old company, long before most Americans had heard of Wuhan, China, the source of the coronavirus outbreak.
Sellars recalls it was Feb. 23, the day Italy experienced its first surge of coronavirus cases, that he began to act. He withdrew his company from a global trade show in Miami that was to be held in mid-March and canceled all company travel—including plans for his brother John, the company’s founder and president, and another employee to travel to Seattle, near where the first coronavirus death in the United States was recorded on Feb. 29.
Sellars said some people thought he was overreacting. But his sense was that too much of the United States was reacting with an attitude of “it’s no big deal,” despite signs that a worldwide outbreak was brewing.
The coronavirus has meant booked sales for March are 30% above budget for Sellars’ company, as it shifts more production to the cleaning wipes that health care facilities need. Sellars doesn’t sell directly to health care providers. Its health care customers include distributors which pick up Sellars cleaning wipes and towels by truck and delivers them to health care providers. “They are seeing and anticipating ongoing high demand. We are having to put limits on how much we are allowing people to purchase above normal so we can serve all of our customers,” said John Sellars. “The challenge in something like this is we’re not taking on new customers; we’re trying to take care of the customers we have,” adds Sellars.
Operations continue to run nearly 24/7—though not without worries.
Like much of American society, “you have people who are very anxious and concerned, and then folks who are trying to do the best they can, and then you have folks who are just not paying enough attention,” said Kathy Huntsinger, the vice president of human resources and Tom and John Sellars’ sister.
The mood on the floor is more somber, said trainer Al Hagen, the go-to guy for any machine problems; he joined the company on the recommendation of his brother-in-law 17 years ago. “We’re still joking and laughing, but a lot less,” he said.
Graverson hopes for a silver lining.
“I expect that we come out of this and maybe be just a little bit more conscientious about each other, and also a little bit more aware about what’s important in life,” she said. “When you’re isolated, you kind of start thinking about time is precious. I hope that we’re just better people after this.”
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