As the COVID-19 virus spreads, store shelves have emptied of hand sanitizer, creating shortages for health care workers, first responders, and the general public. Some individuals and businesses are responding to the shortage with price gouging, but Old Fourth Distillery in the historic Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta, has stopped producing vodka, bourbon, and gin, and started producing hand sanitizer — and they’re giving their new product away.
“We were sort of feeling helpless, you know? What can we do? Our business is already basically shut down. People aren’t booking events. We live and die on people going out, and they’re not going out,” says Jeff Moore, co-owner of Old Fourth Distillery with his brother Craig. “We’ve got all this down time, and we need to do something. We can’t just sit idly by.”
Moore says they got the idea from Shine Distillery in Portland, Oregon, which is using distillate by-product to make hand sanitizer. Old Fourth Distillery is making theirs with at least 60% alcohol per CDC recommendations, using their own 190 proof alcohol and aloe vera gel from Oregon. The pandemic has caused some snags even with that; the gelatin used to manufacture the aloe vera gel comes from China, and there is none currently available in the U.S. “They’ve got another type of aloe that we’re going to use, it’s a little more liquid,” says Moore.
After Moore posted about their new project on Instagram, Brad Schweers, the executive director of Intown Collaborative Ministries, contacted him looking for a supply. ICM is one of several organizations that the City of Atlanta and Fulton County depend on to connect people experiencing chronic homelessness with services and care. “I told him to come on by and pick up whatever we could give him,” says Moore.
For people living on the street who do not have regular access to soap and water and often have compromised immune systems, hand sanitizer could provide a needed shield against a potentially deadly infection.
“Many of our folks have conditions that they don’t even know about because of lack of access to health care,” says April Campbell, a social worker and Director of Outreach for ICM. “A lot of our population is aging as well, we have a lot of older folks on the street who don’t have access to water or port-a-potties.”
Abraham, an elderly man camped with others beside an off ramp downtown, says he usually relies on the elements to keep clean. “I catch rain water to bathe in and wash my clothes,” he says. He is not overly concerned about the COVID-19 virus as of yet, but also says that no one had come out to educate them about it.
Kay Hunter, a licensed clinical social worker who is part of ICM’s outreach team, intends to correct that information gap with a handout containing basic information: Wash your hands, stay six feet away from others, cover your cough. She points out that their clients don’t have access to radio, TV, or other media. “How can you keep yourself safe if you don’t know what’s going on?” she asked.
Abraham says that if given the right information he would help to inform others. “If I were in the government, I would come out here and consider how these folks make decisions,” he says, gesturing at others camped nearby. He added, “In the Bible, it says, ‘What you do unto the least of these, you do also unto me.’”
At Old Fourth Distillery, the Moores are finding themselves trying to solve problems they couldn’t have anticipated a couple of weeks ago. “Craig got a call this morning from the Riverdale public safety department looking for hand sanitizer for everyone, EMTs, fire, all of the first responders,” says Jeff Moore, referring to a suburb 10 miles south of Atlanta. “We’ve heard from a lot of churches, outreach groups, local community groups, everyone. Our goal here is to make this available to the population that’s the most susceptible to what’s going on. What we’re trying to prioritize is who’s getting this, who’s the most in need? It’s been tough because we just take all comers. That’s been a little bit of a challenge for us,” says Moore. Old Fourth has made about a hundred gallons so far, and given it all away.
“It has cost us…whatever. Some money,” Moore says. He says the distillery is fine so far, but eventually manufacturing a product they are giving away will stop being sustainable. “We’re a business just like everybody else, and we’re suffering right now,” he added.
“We’re just trying to figure out how to bankroll this whole thing, because we didn’t imagine the response. We need to be able to fund this, if this is something the community needs,” says Moore.
Originally Old Fourth Distillery was giving hand sanitizer away to the general public, but are now focusing on supplying it to health care workers and first responders. Intown Collaborative Ministries is still on their list, but they also just received a request for 5,000 gallons from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency which will be able to pay for the order out of emergency funds. Moore says their situation is changing “by the hour” but seems optimistic that the problems of supply, funding, and allocation to those who need it most can all be solved: “This is going to be a big change for our business, but I guess we’re going to be manufacturing hand sanitizer for a while.”