Manufacturing is big business in San Jose, and it’s ready to get back to work
San Jose's 10th St. Distillery is producing hand sanitizer to help fill the shortage due to coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Virag Saksena.

Virag Saksena’s whisky, which he makes at 10th Street Distillery in San Jose, is sitting in barrels ready to bottle, but his hands have been tied for months due to the shelter-in-place order that prohibited nonessential manufacturers from operating starting in mid-March.

He set aside whisky making for producing hand sanitizer, but now Saksena is ready to get back to the work he loves under a revised order that will allow manufacturers like his to reopen on Friday.

“We have stuff which has been sitting around,” he said. “The only thing we could do was a little maintenance, if you find a barrel is leaking… but before COVID-19 hit, we were doing some interesting things.”

Retail and restaurants got the bulk of the attention Monday when county officials announced that retailers could offer outdoor dining and in-store shopping, but manufacturers have been the quiet titan ready to re-mobilize in the region’s economy.

The industry employs more than 172,400 workers across Santa Clara County, accounting for more than 15 percent of civilian jobs, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which helped pushed for more manufacturers to be allowed to reopen in the most recent health order.

Prior to Friday, only manufacturing companies considered “essential” and those directly supporting retailers were allowed to operate, a rule that has been in place since May 22. Now, any manufacturer that posts a social-distancing plan and limits the number of people in the building accordingly will be able to get back to work.

Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino this week called the shift “an important win for workers, employers, the Silicon Valley economy and the broader community.”

Though some manufacturers in the region were open to some degree under the previous rules, the leadership group said this week that accounts for “a small share” of the industry.

Indeed, the last couple months have been difficult for many manufacturers, said Michael Erickson, regional director for Manufacture: San Jose, a public-private initiative with the city of San Jose and the nonprofits California Manufacturing Technology Consulting and SFMade to boost the resources and visibility of the local manufacturing industry.

His organization has worked to help San Jose manufacturing companies determine which health order exemptions apply to various types of work and how to adjust staffing. Some have stayed afloat using Paycheck Protection Program funding from the federal government, he said.

San Jose has the largest manufacturing hub in Northern California, accounting for between 50,000 and 60,000 manufacturing jobs and 1,300 industry employers in the region, Erickson said. He’s hearing from local employers that they’re ready to go back to work and that complying with the county’s order won’t be a major problem.

Now the question is how fast will customers return as unemployment across the state and region rises by near-record levels due to the coronavirus and resulting shutdowns.

“(Manufacturers) really make up a very significant component of San Jose’s economy, and their success is really critical to the health of the San Jose economy,” Erickson said.

The shutdown has hurt Saksena’s distillery financially, he said, though he didn’t dwell on that Tuesday as he scrolled through the revised health order.

Instead, he’s already thinking up his plan to start bottling his craft whiskeys and selling to customers who want to take out. The distillery won’t be allowed to open its tasting room, but customers could take 1-ounce bottles home, he said. He’s excited to get back to making some of the “interesting things” he had been brewing before coronavirus shut everything down.

The company will also continue making hand sanitizer, a hot commodity during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we found is that there are people who are charging an arm and a leg for sanitizers, and for businesses which are opening up, it wasn’t fair,” Saksena said. “We were trying to make it, and I think our sanitizer is half the price of some other distilleries that are selling it in San Francisco.”

The leadership group worked closely with Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors president Cindy Chavez and called on a list of Bay Area manufacturers to craft the change, including FUJIFILM Dimatix, Genentech, Infinera, Intuitive Surgical, Lumileds, Micron, SunPower, Super Micro, Transpak, Varian Medical Systems and Western Digital.

Other local business leaders praised the amendment this week, including The SVO, Silicon Valley’s largest chamber of commerce.

“This latest order is a testament to Santa Clara County’s effectiveness in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and will allow more businesses to rehire their employees to adapt to this new normal,” Madison Nguyen, SVO’s executive vice president, said in a statement this week. “Let’s all continue to do our part to keep everyone healthy, expand testing capacity and hire more contact tracers so that we can quickly reopen the rest of the economy.”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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