Czarnowski Collective pivoted from building auto shows to designing COVID-19 field hospitals
As the world grappled with the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the auto industry shut down. It wasn't just factories, suppliers, and dealerships that closed up shop. One by one, some of the largest automotive events in the world were cancelled.
First to fall was the Geneva International Motor Show. The New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) would be pushed back then cancelled. Monterey Car Week is off the calendar. The North American International Auto Show won't be back until 2021.
These cancellations left gaps in employment for many workers who fill their year representing automakers at events and tradespeople who put together the set ups for the shows and arrange their day-to-day operations.
The North American International Auto Show was cancelled when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted the space to use as a field hospital. Photo courtesy of North American International Auto Show
Czarnowski Collective assists with the setup and operations of most of those shows, and others. Like small business owners across the globe, the company's existence was facing extinction.
"The whole industry has been impacted," said Nick Simonette, Czarnowski's vice president of business transformation. "But we have a strong team and network in place to handle any current or future opportunity. With that said, we downsized by roughly 60 percent of our overall employee base."
Facing an unprecedented business environment, Czarnowski pivoted. In addition to moving to help produce filmed events that were originally meant for in-person consumption, the company worked to win the contract to build out the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City, where NYIAS was originally meant to be held in early April, as a field hospital to treat COVID-19 positive patients.
The Javits Center is home to 760,000 square feet of exhibition space. The government tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) with readying the facilities needed as quickly as possible.
"The US Government had disaster-relief efforts for things like fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, but was in need of help for issues related to human health and contagion mitigation," Simonette shared.
The pivot wasn't easy. "The biggest challenge was identifying and speaking with the appropriate person(s) to get the work done," said Simonette. "There were so many voices weighing in, and there was a lot of confusion."
The situation facing the world, and especially New York City, was dire. Time was of the essence, and while Czarnowski did not know the world of healthcare, they did know how to design, create, execute, and tear down large-scale exhibitions inside convention centers.
On March 16, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo requested that the USACE build at least four field hospitals in the city to treat patients effected by COVID-19. He also asked that the Navy deploy its USNS Comfort hospital ship to the city.
That week, inspection teams consisting of personnel from the New York State Office of General Services, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, the New York State Department of Health, and the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs joined with USACE to survey more than a dozen locations for the field hospitals.
By March 21, the State of New York had recommended four sites: the Javits Center, and locations at SUNY Stony Brook, SUNY Old Westbury, and the Westchester Convention Center.
"For the COVID-19 treatment facilities, we immersed ourselves in a new medical vernacular," described Simonette. "Depending on the stage of care needed, there's acute care -- which requires negative-pressure considerations (for infectious diseases) -- and non-acute care areas, which have an open-air exchange (for non-infectious diseases). The structures allow for social-distance requirements and a myriad of safety procedures."
Governor Andrew Cuomo holds a press briefing on Coronavirus, explains working on increasing hospital capacity, building new beds, and increasing medical supplies.Photo by Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Despite all the prep work, the company was unsuccessful with their initial bid. "We lost," said Simonette. "Javits instead awarded [the contract to] T3 Expo and used its rental panel walls for the host of the 3,000 rooms." T3 Expo has long been an approved contractor at the Javits Center and has supported events there in the past for clients including ANIME NYC, The Toy Association, Salesforce, and Amazon.
However, there was a place for Czarnowski in the process. The company's Enhanced Temporary Patient Rooms (ETPRs) were well-suited for handling acute (and non-acute) needs. " Javits recognized this and purchased a complement of 40 rooms to serve as its "COVID" rooms," Simonette said.
It was a small win, but it made a big impact.
New York wasn't the only state opening field hospitals. Louisiana, California, Tennessee, Michigan, Georgia, and Illinois followed suit. In all, over 30 were planned. According to Simonette, "Czarnowski's win [at Javits] paved the way for the selling of thousands of our ETPRs into other field hospitals as USACE decided that our solution was a better hedge against the potential of hospital overcrowding."
As planning evolved, field hospitals in Stony Brook, New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; and Santa Clarita, California became ETPR-only hospitals.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to National Guard members and the media at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center which is being turned into a hospital to help fight coronavirus cases on March 27, 2020. Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images
"Designers, builders, and installers all had to work with an understanding of what the USACE was looking for as an end product," described Simonette. "We've been glad to introduce them to materials such as rigid PVC wall skins that are lightweight, cost-effective, and easily sanitized, which they hadn't considered before, that we know well and work with regularly."
While unemployment claims soared, the new work meant that Czarnowski could bring much of its staff back to work.
"Our COVID-19 efforts have put about 80-100 of our staff back to work, and surely benefited others, who build and supply the materials needed for these builds," said Simonette.
As the spirit of togetherness and unselfishness swept the nation, it also infected the Czarnowski team. "Czarnowski Collective led the way in sharing information and intellectual property," said Simonette. "In the midst of a pandemic, it seemed unethical and irresponsible to hoard best practices for the buildouts to test and treat COVID-19 patients, so we approached our competitors, and formed the Live for Life coalition, to address this problem together.
"There are now more than 200 members, and together we're stronger -- we have increased production capacity, we're sharing critical information, and importantly we can anticipate and react faster to new and changing needs in care and testing. Having capacity at the ready is our biggest strength."
Czarnowski Collective didn't win the contract to set up the Javits Center, but they were given a portion to collaborate on.Photo courtesy of Czarnowski Collective
Despite all the workmen at the ready, there was still confusion and chaos surrounding the build-outs. "The biggest challenge was the stop-and-start nature of production, especially in the beginning, when there were multiple voices, and developments on an hourly basis contributing to the confusion," said Simonette. "In one instance, we had trucks en route to a city when the project was abruptly canceled."
Czarnowski's initial contract was for three months.
Out of the four requested, the Javits Center was the only field hospital that opened in New York after hospitalizations due to the disease fell far below predicted scenario levels. It closed on May 1 after treating more than 1,000 patients. On May 5, the operation was turned over to an integrated health care network called Northwell Health.
At the time it closed, after just a month of operation, New York State had seen over 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. An NPR analysis of federal spending records determined that the cost of the field hospitals is than $660 million, despite many remaining largely unused. Forty percent of that money, $270 million, was spent at just two facilities: the State University of New York at Stony Brook and SUNY Old Westbury.
"It's good to remember that the best-case scenario is having these COVID-19 build projects cancelled, once the virus comes under control," said Simonette.
Though Americans, and the rest of the world, are still not out of the woods when it comes to the virus, businesses like Czarnowski are continuing to find a way to operate by overcoming tough conditions and thriving when faced with new challenges.
"The shift in focus -- from catering to consumers, to catering to patients -- has been as much of a challenge as it's been a privilege. There are few more pressing issues in the world today, and we're grateful to have established ourselves within the scaffolding of addressing the COVID-19 crisis," said Simonette.