Austin Running Company Changes Course Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

KUT 90.5 (4-8-2020)

The economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak hit Kim Overton’s company like it did many others.

“We had to let go four people and a lot of our retail partners have had to shut their doors,” she said.

SPIbelt, which Overton founded 13 years ago, manufactures running accessories like small belts with pouches to hold keys or a phone securely. It sells more than 250,000 a year in stores across 35 countries, but with the pandemic, sales fell to a trickle.

When things came to a head in Austin last month, though, she put aside the running belts and started making masks. These aren’t the surgical-grade N-95 masks. These are the cloth masks that help stop you from spreading germs and keep you from touching your nose and mouth.

“I guess the word spread like wildfire that we’re making them and we sold out almost immediately,” Overton said. “We’ve had to bring on more workers to help sew them.”

A Critical Accessory

Overton said she had an idea something bad could be coming, because of issues with a Chinese partner months ago.

“We already had delays of one particular product that we make with them, so we started seeing shipping and delivery delayed for some of our larger clients as early as December,” she said.

As COVID 19 spread, facemasks quickly became not just a new product, but a requirement in the SPIbelt factory.

“I have a lung condition with the name bronchiectasis,” she said. “It puts me in the high-risk category. It’s a permanent lung condition, damaging of my lungs, makes me susceptible to pneumonia.” And the coronavirus.

This was just last month, but still weeks before the president’s coronavirus task force suggested masks were even necessary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new recommendations on masks last week.

“CDC recommends and the task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said. “These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies. We especially recommend this in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

The masks themselves are critical for people like Overton, who may be feeling more vulnerable in this crisis.

Overwhelmed By Orders

Now SPIbelt is humming again – to a degree.

“We’re so inundated with sales, we want to catch up with inventory,” Overton said.

Overton says the company had to turn off online orders and work through last weekend to meet demand. They hope to restart web sales soon.

There’s seemingly more good news for both SPIbelt and the pandemic: Overton says orders are starting to pick up for their core product, running belts, in – of all places – China.