Last week, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney made wearing masks mandatory in all indoor places and outside for gatherings of people not living in the same household. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine ordered the same on Wednesday.
In accordance with these mandates and following a trend we’ve seen in other parts of the country, entrepreneurs Ben Waxman of A. Waxman & Company, LLC and Nathaniel Parks of Print for Progress think refurbished vending machines could become valuable tools in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in Philadelphia: Earlier this week, the entrepreneurs announced the launch of Philly PPE to sell personal protective equipment like masks for $1 each and disinfecting wipes out of centrally located vending machines that once sold snacks.
The machines are being sourced from several vending supply companies mostly based in the United States’ Northeast region, Waxman said. With a leasing agreement, the machines will be provided at no cost to private locations like hotels, hospitals and residential buildings, and each sponsoring location can receive up to 10% of each machine’s revenue.
In their full-time occupations, Waxman manages political communications and Parks’ business provides campaigns with promotional materials and resources. Parks’ recent experience of figuring out how to provide PPE to the people within the political campaigns he works with gave him the insight needed to create a stable supply chain.
“I spent months trying to secure face masks, sanitizer and other items for several political campaigns and realized how difficult it can be to find a reliable supply of PPE,” he said.
Right now, most of Philly PPE’s supply comes from China, but the team is looking to expand their supplier list “based on product availability and demand,” Waxman said.
Giving people access to masks throughout the city is key to preventing infections, said Waxman, who believes focusing on people having any sort of masks matters more than how sophisticated their masks are.
“Making sure you have masks at a very low price point, starting one dollar at the most and not being fancy or extremely expensive [is important]. The science says wearing a basic cloth masks has a high success rate.”
RapidMask2Go is another startup selling masks in vending machines and started service Tuesday afternoon in Suburban Station. That company’s masks start at $3, marking a two-dollar difference from the starting price of masks in Philly PPE machines.
Using refurbished vending machines will help keep operating costs down and allow Waxman and Parks to install more vending machines at a faster rate to meet what they anticipate to be a rising demand.
As a private business with no government or nonprofit funding, Waxman and Parks are open to collaboration with those types of entities, but for now, they are enjoying the flexibility to move quicker with their work and believe working with private locations helps them do so. The partners currently own 100% of the company and have not taken on any investors.
While the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization suggest wearing masks, many Americans are still on the fence — some for political reasons. Waxman says that wearing masks has become political because of President Donald Trump’s refusal to wear them and his minimization of a pandemic that has already taken more than 500,000 lives worldwide.
“I think what we unfortunately have is a really, really irresponsible person in the White House who is trying to politicize masks,” Waxman said. “It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen in my lifetime of working in politics and government. We’re lucky in Philly to have leaders like Kenney and [Pennsylvania Gov.] Tom Wolf take science seriously and encourage people to wear masks. It boils down to having responsible leadership in the city and state level.”
Philly PPE will have its first demonstration of its vending machines on July 16 in South Philadelphia. The location of the first machine will be revealed just before that date.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.