The New Balance factory in Norridgewock on Monday is expected to produce face masks once the company creates a prototype for use by medical staff dealing with the coronavirus. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

With the state of Maine seeing its first deaths recently from COVID-19, the disease spawned by coronavirus, a Boston-based shoe-manufacturer with factories in Maine will begin producing personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the virus.

New Balance, which has a factory in Norridgewock and a factory store in Skowhegan, announced in a news release over the weekend that the company will begin manufacturing face masks “to address the significant demand” for the supplies.

A representative at New Balance said Monday morning that no information is yet available on how or when the production of the masks will start at central Maine locations, but said that for now, all stores remain closed.

Prototypes will be made at a factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, according to the release. The company hopes to then scale production up to other factories in New England.

“We are coordinating efforts with our government officials and local medical institutions as well as other U.S. consortiums and testing facilities,” the news release says.

The company’s announcement to start producing masks comes on the heels of an announcement on March 24 that the New Balance Foundation had given $2 million in grants to help support local, regional and global communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard Park, a New Balance employee from Skowhegan, spreads rubber cement on a shoe before the sole is added at the Skowhegan factory in 2016. The company has announced that it will make face masks for medical professionals fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Portland Press Herald file file photo by Ben McCanna

“We firmly believe it is our civic duty to support our communities in need around the world,” Anne Davis, managing trustee at New Balance Foundation, said in the release. “As we witness the growing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inspired by the acts of humanity, kindness and compassion that have emerged in support of one another during this health crisis.”

“Guided by our values, NB Foundation will remain generous, flexible and responsive recognizing the uncertainty created by these challenging times.”

Norridgewock and Skowhegan have been beneficiaries of the foundation.

Norridgewock Town Manager Richard LaBelle said that New Balance worked closely with the town and Somerset Public Health in 2019 to identify needs within the community. As a result, he said that the foundation donated $5,000 to the town for future food pantry development.

Because of COVID-19, LaBelle said that Kate Bartley, charitable program specialist at New Balance, reached out to express interest in using the funds to soften the financial impact on community members.

“Last week alone, these funds supported the purchase of three pallets of food from Good Shepherd Food Bank,” LaBelle said. “The food is being distributed in pantry boxes, but it is also helping to support the pickup/delivery hot meal program that volunteers are coordinating in Norridgewock.”

The hot meal delivery/pickup is available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week from 4 to 6 p.m. at the First Congregational Church at 36 River Road.

LaBelle said that New Balance has always been a staple in the town, not just during the pandemic.

The New Balance facility in Skowhegan on Monday, temporarily closed due to the coronavirus. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“The Town of Norridgewock is very grateful for the role New Balance plays in our community, not just in times like these, but every day throughout the year,” LaBelle said. “Norridgewock is proud to be the home of a New Balance manufacturing facility, and we are thankful for the organization’s continued commitment to manufacture American-made goods.”

“During this difficult time, we are even more appreciative for their leadership’s decision to explore the manufacturing of masks to support the folks in the medical community who are putting their lives on the line each day at work,” LaBelle said.

In Skowhegan, longtime Recreation Director Denise LeBlanc said that New Balance regularly helps fund the Move More Kids program, which is in place to prevent childhood obesity through after-school programs and events to get kids outdoors.

Additionally, New Balance has also helped purchase equipment and donated sneakers to the community center to benefit those in need.

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