LaPorte County factory that normally makes insulated food carrier bags for school nutrition programs has switched to making cotton masks for the fight against coronavirus.

Sterno Products in LaPorte normally produces bags to feed hot meals to school kids, such as when breakfast is delivered in the classroom. About 30 workers are employed at the plant at 3539 Monroe St., formerly known as sevenOKs and TCB Manufacturing.

It built up enough of a stockpile of insulated bags for the summer rush, and is now switching to sewing about 3,000 cloth masks a day to protect people from the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“It’s the culmination of seeing the need for mass for medical professionals and the general public,” said David Amirault, Sterno’s vice president of product development and marketing. “We knew we could do it.”

LaPorte Mayor Tom Dermody, from whom California-based Sterno acquired the company, arranged to get the masks to LaPorte Hospital. The factory – which also has made food delivery bags for Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Papa John’s – scrounged up materials to make tightly woven double-ply cotton masks that are pleated around the ears.

“These are not the N95 respirator masks that doctors and nurses need when directly dealing with COVID-19 patients,” Amirault said. “But what these do is go to nurses and other workers who are not directly working with those patients, such as the folks at reception and the front desk, freeing more N95 masks to go to those on the front lines.”

Sterno Products is procuring a large supply of fabric to ramp up production and plans to make the masks available to hospitals, nursing homes, and restaurants.

“The nice thing is they’re washable so they can be sanitized at the end of the day by washing them and using bleach,” Amirault said. 

Sterno Products will toggle production back and forth as needed between insulated food bags and the masks. It’s also converting another plant it owns in Memphis to start making hand sanitizer.

“It’s as American as it gets,” Amirault said. “This country is very entrepreneurial when we get a call to action. Everyone wants to chip in and help do our part. We’re in the fight against this. We plan to make these available to the public and will support the medical field in Northern Indiana.”