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The day before Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus, ordering most of California’s 40 million people to stay home and shelter in place, life was great for Ron Daniels and his twin brother, John. They had just finished construction on a 37,000-square-foot factory, where they would expand their family business: manufacturing theme-park-quality tree houses, high-end designer shooting galleries, and a wild menagerie of animal and cartoon-character robots.
But when Governor Gavin Newsom issued his stay-at-home order on March 19 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lights went out at the brothers’ 20-year-old dream of a business — Daniels Wood Land in Paso Robles — and almost all 55 of the Daniels’ employees found themselves out of work.
Ron Daniels remembers the moment well. “I just saw 20 years melt away and dissolve into nothingness.” Rather than go home and “vibrate and quiver,” Daniels said he and his brother asked if there was something they could do. More specifically, they asked their local fire marshals — the very next day. One of the fire marshals said, “‘We can’t find any Level One protective gowns,’” Daniels recounted, a key piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed by first responders.
“This is a commodity that’s evaporated on the world market,” Daniels said. “Everyone needs these.” Among the multitude scrounging for such protective gear was Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig. This past Tuesday, in fact, Hartwig detailed his concerns about running out of PPE while testifying before the County Board of Supervisors. County firefighters, it turns out, respond to about 50 medical calls for service a day, and ambulance drivers even more. With COVID-19 cases gathering steam and about to achieve critical mass, gowns — like face masks and gloves — have grown absolutely essential for front-line public-safety personnel.
Two days after Newsom’s stay-at-home order, the Daniels brothers had put together 10 prototypes for the protective gowns. The local firefighting establishment, Daniels said, declared their work “a grand slam.” Within five days, they had orders for 50,000. As of this Friday, that number is 750,000. The Daniels brothers retooled their factory, installing 100 workstations where more than 200 employees — their original 55 plus an additional 150 — are now assembling long-sleeved polyethylene gowns that drape down to the knee. The sleeves are not sewn on but welded. Like hospital gowns, the ones made by the Daniels brothers are open in the back and tied up.
“It’s like a giant body condom,” Daniels said of the gown.
As of Thursday, the Daniels brothers were producing 10,000 a day. By Friday, he said, it was 15,000. By Saturday, he said it would be 20,000. Santa Barbara County Fire Department placed an order for 5,000. Each gown costs $5.
“Before World War II, Henry Ford made cars. Once the war started, he made tanks,” Daniels said. “This is war. We wanted to join the fight.”
Daniels said he’s taking orders from firefighters, paramedics, ambulance companies, and even agricultural growers who want their strawberry pickers protected. “We’re sending stuff into Ground Zero,” he said, referring to what’s happening right now in New York City. One ambulance company representative described taking older patients out of nursing homes “with blood running out of their noses and fevers of 105” but without any protective gear.
Daniels likened his gowns to plastic ponchos. If anyone sneezes or coughs, the plastic keeps any droplets of sputum from getting through to the clothes or the skin.
Daniels, now 47, grew up in Paso Robles and jokes that his business might be the only one in that town not affiliated with the wine industry. He attended Cuesta College and got a master’s in math from Cal Poly. Upon achieving that advanced degree, Daniels explained, he and his brother set out to build tree houses. They were high-end, fancy, and whimsical in the extreme. Some looked like boats. All looked like they popped out of a theme park. From there, it expanded into designer shooting galleries and robotic bears. If it seems a little Disney-inspired, that’s no accident.
“Walt Disney had his imagineers,” Daniels said. “Daniels Wood Land has its figure-outers. We’re figuring it out.”
At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor. Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.