From liquor brands to car factories, production lines now resemble the war effort

From fashion brands to automakers to Silicon Valley tech firms, big business is stepping up to help fight the spread of coronavirus in ways that are starting to resemble the World War II effort.

While President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act this week to commandeer resources from business if needed, companies and entrepreneurs are also volunteering help on their own.

General Motors announced Friday it would be collaborating with a ventilator producer to ramp up production of respiratory care products, leveraging GM’s “logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise,” according to a joint statement released Friday by GM and Ventec.

“We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis,” said Mary Barra, GM Chairman and CEO.

Ford has also said it will investigate ways to produce ventilators. Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk said his company would also produce ventilators, given that Tesla already builds sophisticated HVAC technology for its cars. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took him up on the idea.

Liquor company Pernod Ricard, with plants in Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas and West Virginia, said this week it will switch its production lines to produce hand sanitizer, an essential item in the fight against the spread of the virus that is in short supply across the country.

France’s luxury goods behemoth LVMH was one of the first to convert its plants to make sanitizer instead of perfume.

“We are in a national emergency,” Chad Butters, the founder of Eight Oaks Farm Distillery in Pennsylvania told the Associated Press, after converting his production lines to make hand sanitizer. “What’s the right thing to do? The right thing to do is support this community by providing something that is in desperate need.”

Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Target have all agreed to let their parking lots be used as test sites for the virus.

President Donald Trump also said he was in conversations with Carnival Cruise Line to use cruise ships for regular patients if hospitals become overwhelmed with coronavirus cases. “He made the offer,” Trump said Thursday. “He has some ships that would be ideally suited. So we appreciate it from Carnival.”

Tech companies are also on the frontlines of efforts to help in the fight against the pandemic. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian bought billboard ads in Times Square to persuade people to stay home.

A unit of Google is working on an informational website for consumers on where and how to get tested.

Facebook and Google are in conversations about sharing phone location data with the government to enable tracking of the disease’s spread, a move causing concern among privacy advocates.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said Saturday his company would donate millions of masks, tweeting, “Our teams at Apple have been working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19. We’re donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe. To every one of the heroes on the front lines, we thank you.”

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, announced on Wednesday the company would donate $100 million to small businesses in 30 countries to boost local economies, and Airbnb said it would help make homes available for free to Italian medical practitioners.

“I’ve seen a flurry of announcements about companies leaning in and I think that’s great as long as they truly walk to walk on that,” John Osborn, CEO of OMD ad agency, told NBC News. Advertisers are in conversations about donating airtime they can no longer use to the Red Cross, which is facing a potential blood shortage as people stay home, he added.

Not all companies may have a choice in whether to help. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio is eyeing hotels and other commercial sites to convert to medical facilities if necessary.

Lawrence J. White, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said companies will naturally look for the business opportunity in the midst of chaos.

“Whether it is trying to come up with a vaccine or trying to come up with better, more accurate or faster tests, this is a transformation,” said White. “They expect to get paid for this, but it is still a pivot to something that is more focused on the national and international issue.”

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