CLEANLIFE LED Founder and CEO Justin Miller has been “well aware” of COVID-19 since early December 2019 when the outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, China.
In Taiwan at the time, Miller, who spends “almost half the year” in China for business, said he canceled a New Year’s trip to Thailand and returned home to downtown Cleveland.
“This was at a time when we didn’t even imagine it would come to the (United States),” Miller told the CJN.
Concerned for friends and colleagues in China, Miller offered to buy personal protective equipment in the U.S. to send overseas, but said he quickly learned items such as masks are mass-produced there.
“It was very easy for people in China to get masks and also everybody in China was 100% willing to wear masks as well,” Miller said. “It was kind of government mandated and people just kind of did it.”
But China “completely shut down,” and along with it, CLEANLIFE’s factory, Miller said, describing the company as a joint venture with a publicly traded LED company in China.
“We’re essentially the North American distribution and engineering center for the factory and we have our own brand for the North American market,” he said. CLEANLIFE manufacturers highly-customized LED lighting solutions for clients such as Marriott International, Hilton, Walmart Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., Wendy’s and The Coca-Cola Co.
“We weren’t able to produce and ship to the U.S. and in the U.S., there was no pandemic at the time,” Miller said. “In a normal world, our customers need product and we couldn’t make and ship product. So we’ve been affected by the virus since January and February when our operations in China got shut down, and I was talking to friends and colleagues in China every day hearing about how terrible it was there ... and everybody knew somebody who knew somebody that died.”
As soon as Miller heard a few COVID-19 cases popped up in the U.S., he called his partner in China to ask for help obtaining personal protective equipment to proactively bring in to the U.S. “in case there’s going to be a pandemic.”
“I had already procured a significant amount of masks ... including N95s and surgical masks, but I didn’t want to tell anybody about it until they actually arrived to the U.S. and were in our warehouse,” Miller said. “The last thing I want to do is make a promise that we’re going to be able to supply something that we can’t.”
CLEANLIFE also had to register with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to become authorized to sell these products – including hand sanitizer, face shields and digital thermometers – commercially in the U.S. Miller wanted to make sure it was done properly.
Identifying the time frame as end of February, early March, Miller said the demand for personal protective equipment was low and the Surgeon General was advising the masses to not buy N95 masks.
“Here we are in Cleveland, we have over a hundred-thousand masks in our warehouse, and my mom lives at Menorah Park, so naturally that was one of the first places I (reached out to),” said Miller, who attends Park Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike. “Next thing you know, I’m getting a call from the president of Menorah Park and Montefiore, essentially saying, ‘Wow, this is a miracle.’”
Since then, CLEANLIFE has supplied masks to more than 10 nursing homes “from Cleveland all the way down to Columbus and as far as Massachusetts,” including Menorah Park and Montefiore, both in Beachwood, and Ohio Living in Westerville.
Miller admits his supply was depleted about a month ago, but said he was able to secure another round of personal protective equipment that should arrive by the end of the month.
“Just to be clear, I would hope there are other companies that Menorah Park and other nursing homes can buy from,” Miller said.
He said it’s not his goal to be anybody’s exclusive personal protective equipment supplier.
“(It’s) not a competition, it’s really not even a business,” Miller said. “It’s something that you do to the best of your ability that’s a joint effort, so whatever other companies in the community or the government is able to supply, at the end of the day, is a win for everybody.”