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In the battle against COVID-19, distilleries have become a surprisingly essential partner. Hundreds of operations across America formerly dedicated to producing liquor, ethanol and other alcohol-based products have repurposed their lines to produce hand sanitizer.


Although hand washing with soap and water is the defense against COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol when soap and water aren’t available. For many essential employees, including law enforcement, postal workers and utility workers, hand sanitizer is a vitally important part of staying safe and avoiding spreading COVID-19 in the community.


Spring Hill-based Bull Creek Distillery converted its entire operation and workforce of 50 to hand sanitizer production in April, using the World Health Organization recipe made with ethanol, distilled water, glycerol and hydrogen peroxide. The distillery now produces more than 10,000 bottles of hand sanitizer a day, supplying nursing homes, hospitals and government agencies, as reported by The Topeka Capital-Journal.


Good Spirits Distillery in Olathe, Boot Hill Distillery in Dodge City and J. Rieger & Co. in Kansas City, Mo., among others, similarly converted production.


The ingenuity and adaptability or our manufacturing sector is one of our great strengths, and it has saved us before. When Franklin Roosevelt famously called on America to become “the great arsenal of democracy” in 1940, it was just this type of industrial innovation he championed.


“American industrial genius,” Roosevelt said, “unmatched throughout the world in the solution of production problems, has been called upon to bring its resources and talents into action. Manufacturers of watches, of farm implements, Linotypes, cash registers, automobiles, sewing machines, lawn mowers and locomotives are now making fuses, bomb-packing crates, telescope mounts, shells, pistols and tanks.”


Manufacturers responded to Roosevelt’s challenge to turn production to defense in unprecedented ways. The effort created new processes, industries and workforces that not only would help turn the tide in the war but bolster the American economy for decades to come.


We now face a lesser crisis but with similar ingenuity. Teachers have moved entire classrooms online, quilters are creating cloth face masks by the hundreds and motor manufacturers are making ventilator parts.


But just as in WWII, private innovations must be supported by public policy and investment. Emergency orders guided by science, health care delivery, vaccine development and testing infrastructure are critical to fighting this pandemic. Americans will step up, as we have before, but our leaders must act responsibly on our behalf to leverage the full weight of American innovation.


Roosevelt issued his challenge in 1940 with “with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed.” We have similar confidence, if we can model the work of distilleries and find more ways to channel our full resources into the fight.