Gulfport Resident Pivots Business to Mask Making

Mark Wheeler makes face shields at Wheeler Bags’ facility in St. Petersburg

Gulfport resident Mark Wheeler makes face shields at Wheeler Bags’ facility in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Marika Wheeler.

A Gulfport resident has joined the fight against COVID-19 by pivoting his family textile business to manufacture both cloth masks and more heavy-duty polycarbonate face shields.

While Mark Wheeler was serving in the Canadian armed forces, he was unsatisfied with some of the field equipment he was issued. He began experimenting in order to create a better, more element-proof carrier for his field notebooks. The result was a waterproof, modular canvas tactical product, and it led him to found his company CPGear in 1983. Since then, the company has expanded to create everything from field bags and embroidered military patches to, yes, tactical masks.

As Wheeler was looking to build his business in America, a real estate agent mentioned an available property in Gulfport. He moved into a condo in town in 2013, and opened an auxiliary company, Wheeler Bags, in St. Petersburg.

“[We were] just looking for a nice place to live,” Wheeler says. “It was so nice. Such a small-town feel, and being on the water was awesome.”

When the coronavirus struck locally in early March, he realized his family business was ideally suited to creating masks. The company quickly shifted to focus on manufacturing both cloth masks and polycarbonate face shields.

Cloth face masks. Photo courtesy Marika Wheeler.

Cloth face masks. Photo courtesy Marika Wheeler.

“After looking online at the different calls to action posted across the country, we took a look at our raw materials and realized that we have all the materials needed to re-tool and start producing Lexan (polycarbonate) face shields,” says Wheeler’s daughter Marika, who heads up the company’s sales and marketing division. “We started producing these at the end of March. As there started to be more awareness of the benefits of wearing face covers, we began producing the fabric face masks as well.”

She estimates that the 15 to 20 employees at the St. Petersburg facility have produced in the area of 20,000 fabric masks, as well as more than 10,000 Lexan face shields. The primary market for the face shields are essential workers and first responders, while the fabric masks are more popular among the general public.

“As a smaller business, we’re really fortunate to be able to pivot quickly depending on what the current demand is for,” Marika says.

As for her father, he’s happy to be contributing to the community – and beyond – that has welcomed his family and given them so much pleasure.

“Apart from what’s happening now,” he says, “it’s like being on holiday all the time.”

For more information on the masks or protective gear the company is making, contact info@cpgear.com.

Mary Vue sews fabric masks. Photo courtesy Marika Wheeler.

Mary Vue sews fabric masks. Photo courtesy Marika Wheeler.

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