Seamstress pivots her business to make COVID masks

ALBANY COUNTY — When the pandemic struck and Karen Maxwell was laid off from her job as a business analyst for the health department, she reinvented her clothing company to make protective masks.

“I’ve been featured on Harlem Fashion Week,” said Maxwell, the sole proprietor of Kema’s Kreations, which had been a part-time job but is now full-time. “I had a full design on the runway but then the pandemic hit.”

Maxwell went on, “As a seamstress, I was able to turn my business around and service a need.” Referencing the directive for people to wear masks in public, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Maxwell said, “When the governor put the mandate in place, we needed to make sure everyone was protected.”

Maxwell’s appearance at Saturday’s county press briefing was previewed by Linda MacFarlane’s appearance on May 4. MacFarlane is the executive director of the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region, which she explained is providing emergency grants to small businesses that have been hurt by the pandemic and economic shutdown. The hope is to raise $3 million to give grants up to $20,000 to businesses in need.

To qualify, the businesses must employ 50 or fewer people and must have experienced at least a 10- to 25-percent decline in revenues due to COVID-19.

Among the businesses that MacFarlane highlighted was Maxwell’s; she received a $20,000 grant.

MacFarlane displayed one of the masks, which she wears, just as Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Friday displayed a mask Maxwell had made for him.

MacFarlane said the owner of the Orange Street business in Albany applied for a grant to purchase equipment to her to cut fabric faster and to hire two minority women to help, said MacFarlane.

Maxwell said on Saturday that her efforts “made sure that my community was safe as well as myself.” She went on, “I’m so grateful to the Community Loan Fund for opening up their doors and making the grant fund available to use.” She said that she is praying that an application she made to a KeyBank grant program will come through as well.

Maxwell’s website, Kemaskreation.com, pictures masks in a wide variety of fabrics, ranging from bandana prints to prints with cartoon characters.

The homepage of Maxwell’s website tells her story:“She remembers the feeling of her 4-year-old finger sliding across the tile floor, gently tracing its delicate floral pattern. The sun warming her face as a gentle breeze carries the scents and sounds of Panama throughout her mother’s sewing room as she was… Hemming and Mending.

“Years later, home economics reawakened long suppressed memories of the time she spent with her mother in the warmth of her sewing room and all her beautiful and vibrant creations. Her deft fingers quickly set to work, and the admiration of classmates resulted in requests to wear her creation of a long, straight-lined dress with short sleeves …

“The appreciation for her kreations developed her confidence and she applied to Fashion Industries High School to major in fashion design and merchandising. Her sewing addiction was supported by winning dance contests, always wearing a Kema original to showcase the finesse used to command the stage ….”

Maxwell said on Friday, “I was able to not only pivot my business but assist with keeping folks employed.” She hired two young women to help her because so many orders for masks came in.

“To date, we’re running close to 1,500, which was a lot for me to do by myself but I was able to keep those two ladies employed — one of which was a nursing student and she needed that assistance.”

An hour after Maxwell told her mask-making story, Andrew Cuomo, at his press briefing in the Executive Mansion in Albany, again stressed the need for wearing masks.

“I am telling you those masks can save your life,” he said. “Those masks can save another person’s life. And the most astonishing fact to me all through this, that the emergency room health professionals have a lower infection rate than the general population. That’s the bus drivers, transit workers, police officers, have a lower rate of infection because the masks work, and we gave them the masks and they wore the masks. So, wear a mask.”

Maxwell concluded with gratitude for the Community Loan Fund, saying it “allows us to keep our doors open, to feed our families but also to help our community.”


McCoy praised Maxwell’s work and resilience, saying it typified many small businesses.

He also referenced the state’s new program for loans to small businesses that did not receive federal COVID-19 assistance, announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday.

With $100 million available, the New York Forward Loan Fund will focus on woman-owned and minority-owned businesses. “The federal definition of small business is what many could consider large business, but we’re going to focus on true small businesses. Twenty or fewer employees, less than $3 million in gross revenues,” said Cuomo.

Businesses interested in receiving a loan should visit esd.ny.gov/nyforwardloans.

McCoy also announced that Albany County has been awarded $675,000 for the federal CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act, which will be used for COVID-19 testing at Shaker Place, the county’s nursing home. 

The governor has required nursing-home workers and nursing-home residents throughout the state to be tested twice a week for the virus. McCoy said it costs $200,000 each month to test the workers at Shaker Place.

As of Saturday morning, McCoy said, Albany County has 1,625 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as well as 906 residents under mandatory quarantine and three under precautionary quarantine.

So far, 4,187 county residents have completed quarantine, with 1,153 of them having tested positive and recovered.

Twenty-eight county residents are hospitalized with one in an intensive-care unit. The hospitalization rate for Albany County stands at 1.72 percent.

Finally, McCoy said, while 30 reported overdoses linked to fentanyl-laced crack cocaine did not involve Albany County residents, the county has seen a small uptick in the number of overdoses compared to last year’s numbers

Before the pandemic, McCoy said, the county held free monthly training sessions with Project Safe Point, to dispense Narcan. Those training sessions will now take place weekly through videoconferencing, every Tuesday at 11 a.m.

Participants will learn how to spot the signs of an overdose and how to use the overdose-reversing antidote Narcan. Accessing free Narcan kits will be addressed during the training.

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