New Normal

Updates from the ‘Come Together’ COVID-19 Series.

It turns out our online publishing experiment with the “Come Together” series of interviews with screen printers worldwide is going to be more or less permanent. We started it in the April/May print issue of Screen Printing magazine. That may very well be the last traditionally printed version for a while as the magazine enters this new digital platform. I think the first article I ever wrote for SP was in 1993, and here we are: printers, paperless. Strange days have found us. 

We can mourn the change, but we can also look forward. The big advantages to online publishing from this guy’s perspective are a lack of restriction on word count and number of pictures, plus the ability to get stories and articles to you in a much quicker time frame. 

Because of the response to the series, I thought you might be interested in hearing an update from some of our correspondents. So, in the first truly digital form of “Shop Talk,” we check in with Nick Danger in China, Beppe Quaglia in Bergamo, Italy, Iris Sautier in Montreal, Canada, and Luther Davis in Brooklyn, USA.

If you read the original reports, you might have noticed a theme of renewal and resumption of business – although reopening comes with a new set of rules and regulations. Just like an all-digital format, this is the new normal we’ve been told about. Outside of our shops, depending on where you live, our social and political structures are also undergoing massive change. Where will we end up a few days or weeks from now, who knows? I, for one, embrace it. The pandemic has exposed how fragile our current social systems are and made everyone take a long hard look at the fault lines running through them.

Let’s start in China. When we last checked in with our operative “Nick Danger,” he had gone through a strict quarantine procedure and the country had started to return to work. Stringent controls were put in place, much harsher than many countries, Canada and the US included.

COVID-19 in China: Part Deux
The saga continues as Nick gives us an update from the world’s largest screen printing shop.

Nick Danger
Nick Danger

ND: It’s been roughly two months since my last written contribution and report about how life goes on here in China. For the most part, life, both commercial and personal, has resumed to a level of normalcy, but there have been a few twists. 

AM: What’s happening at ye olde silk screen shoppe?

From a commercial standpoint, our backlog of customer orders has declined and we have not seen much of an increase in incoming orders or new sample development requests from our overseas brand customers. We’ve shifted some of our capabilities over to face covers to create a new “fashion accessory” product. These can be worn over a surgical type mask or the mask material can be inserted into a pocket, which is built inside of the face cover. 

Can you tell us about “local for local” and other new initiatives?

Recently, there’s been an emerging market opportunity focus to provide products for the local consumers: local for local. Some overseas brands have set up brand development centers here in China, specifically to create products aimed directly at the local consumers. There are many here in China who are willing to part with their money for apparel products while other market opportunities abroad are still in a state of decline or recovery. Interestingly, we have elected to incorporate virtual reality (VR) technology into our operation, which allows our customer base the convenience of taking virtual tours of our facilities without leaving the comforts of their offices or living rooms.

Virtual reality sounds cool. How does it work in a screen shop?

It has proven to be very effective as  we can lead them around the facilities while providing interactive dialogue during a tour together. Who knows; this may become the new norm as it has shown to save considerable amounts of time and money. 

We’ve heard of DTG and CTS, both examples of digital processing that have replaced aspects of “traditional” screen printing. Is this something you’re incorporating? 

Beyond being utilized in printing technology, we’ve now introduced digital samples. After printing the strike offs, we are taking high-resolution digital photographs and videos to show the customer the printed effect. We also demonstrate our ability to match color standards by providing digital color data (communicated in Delta E) by measuring these with our spectrophotometer. In cases where high density ink is being applied to a graphic, we are using our emulsion thickness gauge to provide an accurate measurement on the thickness we have achieved compared to what the customer has specified.

We considered this years ago, but with the current COVID-19 situation it provided the need to implement it. Not only does it save time by eliminating the courier service from here to other countries, it also eliminates the documentation, packaging, labor, jet fuel for flights, and surface transportation.

How is the day-to-day life in China? 

From a personal perspective, life has seemed to just carry on with the “new norm.” We are all still carrying our personal tracking apps on our phones and are required to show those upon entry into shopping malls, places of residence, and especially hospitals. Our schools have reopened, implementing new health and safety protocols with mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, adjusted activities in physical education, and temperature taking at least twice a day. Where it becomes interesting is for the next school year. My son’s school has teachers who have contracts that will expire at the end of this school year. Because many of the borders are closed outside of China, they are stuck here. At the same time, there are teachers who have signed new contracts and are waiting to see when the borders will open so they can enter China and begin to teach. Then, there are those teachers who have contracts that will continue, but would like to travel home. By doing this, they may not be able to reenter the country.

As for me, I run a fairly tight social circle so I’m not being exposed to much of the general society in the course of my day. It’s more or less home to the coffee shop, then to work in my office, and return back home. We might order take out, but for us that’s like a night out at the restaurant. We are not considering a summer holiday back to the US, and we’re under further debate on whether or not to travel inside of China.

We, like many of you around the world, are wondering when the current COVID-19 situation may cool down. What will become the new travel norm? Will COVID-19 nucleic tests, with a subsequent short-term quarantine, be required before you purchase airline tickets? What will be the procedure once you arrive to your destination and then again on your return home? How soon will a vaccine become available and how will that be rolled out across the globe? You’ve already seen where some new cases of COVID-19 in Beijing that entered into China from shipments of salmon coming in from Norway. Seems the virus was held in suspension on the packaging of the salmon while inside the refrigerated containers. This newest outbreak brings further caution and causes us to reconsider our cautious optimism we were achieving over the past several weeks.

Bepper Quaglia
Beppe Quaglia

One of the first places outside of China to be hit hard was Bergamo, Italy, home of Beppe Quaglia of Virus Inks. The true reality of COVID-19 and its ability to overwhelm the medical facilities, especially the frontline medical workers, many of whom died, started to make an impact once videos and news reports went out. It was at this point the WHO declared it a pandemic. Bergamo showed how uncontained spread in a given region could quickly infect a large part of the population. 

AM: So, is this the quiet after the storm in Bergamo?

BQ: We are still counting who is there who is not, but things are doing better now. Time and space are the two concepts that Coronavirus has radically altered. They will no longer be conceivable as before, because nothing will be the same. From now on, there will be a before and after Coronavirus. Bergamo has been the epicenter of a world pandemic, which is leaving wounds that cannot be easily healed. But we do have to think about the future and how we can reorganize ourselves. It is necessary to learn how to live in a new way, avoiding repetition of the same mistakes. Work, school, tourism, culture, transportation, and welfare... nothing can be like before, not even when we find an antidote to defeat COVID-19. We need not only a cure, but a behavioral change able to eradicate the reasons that have caused it.

In general, are people feeling better?

Locally, COVID-19 seems to have lost some of its power, and this is creating a more optimistic perspective. Outside the home, the restrictions are less tight and people are back to their outdoor activities. This is making things seem quiet, although the authorities are alerting the public to a possible return of COVID-19 in September. For now, we enjoy and appreciate a bit of freedom; we really deserve it! 

The Bergamo administration is wanting to reduce attendance in the various places of the city, to avoid gatherings and contagion risks. This is pushing people and businesses towards an extension of the daily “useful time” through the adoption of different working times and shifts. Technology has made this “Smart Working” (a shift in start and end times at work) familiar in recent weeks and has involved tens of thousands of citizens in Bergamo. This has allowed people to move around easier, with less people in high-use areas at specific times and thinned out vehicle traffic. It would be good to maintain this.

What are some areas of concern?

From a health point of view, the pandemic has particularly exposed the vulnerability of older citizens and disabled people, among other at-risk groups. The condition of solitude that has characterized their lives has proved to be a further factor of fragility that we need to avoid with improved home services solutions. 

The same could be said about childcare, probably one of the most overlooked and critical issues in this second phase. There is the given complexity around the restart of the schools and activities for older kids, but even more so for ages zero to six. The City Quarters appear to be an ideal space for possible organization from the bottom up. 

Regardless of the above, the best news is infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are decreasing massively every day and most of the regions are next to zero. 

Are all the shops and businesses open?

It appears we are moving toward some kind of normality. Manufacturers, shops, restaurants, and other activities have unlocked, as well. Theatres and cinemas are going to open in the next few days. However, the future remains uncertain because the restrictions are still limiting the regular operation of many jobs, and the social distancing is consistently reducing the number of clients who can enter and be served.

These limitations have convinced many restaurants and bars to stay closed, because the possible business would not be sufficient to cover costs or hire employees. Like many other countries, the Italian government has allocated several billions of euros, but they are neither available nor perceptible on the real market. Everybody is brainstorming their own future, but with an absence of solid certainties, this doesn’t seem to provide concrete elements for a solid business. To me, it seems an open mind and intuition are so far the only useful tools readily available. 

Where do printers go from here?

Many printing shops are still closed down, but others have reopened with a reduced work force. So far, the main business seems to be the face mask. It could be good for a while, but I consider this something limiting the screen printing perspective. In this kind of situation, I think we should take the chance to review our objectives and have the courage to cut the dry branches of our professional tree. This could be painful, but it will hurt much less than other potential consequences. I’m seeing people make new exciting decisions, but without having to change their style or approach to business. 

COVID-19 is only the latest arrival among our enemies, and not the last. We should learn from this dramatic experience, and get clearer ideas about how and what we need to change. Sustainability, eco-friendly materials, environmental respect, improvements in society, and green vision are just a few of the elements on which we can brainstorm. These elements are able to offer a better life as well as a new generation of business to develop. And, of course, screen printing is included! Good health and luck to everybody.

Iris Sautier
Iris Sautier

Iris Sautier is in the main COVID-19 hotspot in Canada, which also happens to be one of its largest cities: Montreal. This is one characteristic of the virus we know – it seems to spread more in urban centers, where people are living in close quarters. As it progresses, some parts of Europe have slowed the curve and come out of lockdown. In Quebec, some of the worst outbreaks were in retirement homes. The Army was deployed to a number of locations where staff got sick and the homes and people were abandoned. Iris brings us up to speed.

IS: At the time I write these lines, Quebec’s pandemic curve has just started to flatten (or has it?), while in my country of origin, Switzerland, the lockdown has been lifted for almost a month. Not all businesses in Quebec have been allowed to resume their operations just yet. In the streets and shops, people display a moderated 
cautiousness, as city officials cannot bring themselves to make the mask mandatory in enclosed public spaces, and most of the population is just fed up with the whole situation. Will the curve get a chance to go down at all? It’s hard to be optimistic at the moment.

AM: How are things now at La Bourgeoise Sérigraphe?

The gradual reopening is really noticeable for my studio, as emails are starting to flow in again. It’s a bittersweet feeling, having to get up earlier again and speed up the beat, as I enjoyed the slower pace of business during the lockdown. Work seems to be picking up for my peer screen printers, judging by social media. I haven’t heard about any of my competitors closing as a result of COVID-19, but I know lots of people are anxious about the fact that the emergency response benefit is ending soon. With most of the usual cultural events and festivals canceled this summer, we all will have to count with a loss of income.

What about future business, your workshops, and classes? We are just looking at this where I work.
It is quite hard to picture how things are going to go for the second half of the year. Business wise, I am conflicted with the decision to stop giving classes and limit supervised rental, as they bring in 
a significant revenue, but I am really wondering how fun classes can be in a climate of mutual suspicion. Furthermore, I hesitate in what policy I shall adopt with customers and coworkers. Do we put on masks or face shields all the time or just in certain situations? Do we require customers to wear masks when they enter or not? Do we provide them with some if they don’t have any? How strict shall we be? These questions remain to be answered and certainly will have an effect on the workflow.

In lock down, we miss people and value real connections, yet the pandemic  has forced us further down a digital, virtual rabbit hole. What are your thoughts on this?

In order to avoid these dilemmas, we hear many companies are making a permanent switch to teleworking, thus eliminating all risks of transmission of the virus and saving a lot of money in the process. While this can seem to be a good solution at first glance, it takes for granted that everyone has a living situation comfortable enough to make working at home desirable! Particularly in big cities where space is a luxury, only a minority of people can afford a place that’s appropriate for a good working environment. This doesn’t even take into account other aggravating factors linked to family life, domestic violence, or isolation. 

It is such a contradiction to me that the epiphany the pandemic seemingly brought us, helping us recognize the real values of life, like taking more time to do things, caring more about each other, being more creative, reconnecting with nature, etc. will end up morphing into a massive move to the digital world. I cannot help but wince each time I read that schools, concerts, exhibits, and fairs are going to be all virtual this year, and hearing people pretend that this is progress.

While the beauty is in the hands, Iris says “bye, bye Albuquerque,” and “hello” to her new 2880-pound friend.

Despite the relative risk COVID-19 brings to my life, I am so grateful I am in a line of work that forces me to still be physically present and connect with something else than just the keys of my computer. Being in a manual trade is a blessing. I never wanted to go all-digital or all-automatic, and I never will. I just started offering inkjet printing, but know already it will never bring me the same satisfaction as a perfect print achieved after many hours of hard work.

So this is it... COVID-19 made me give up my lithography training in Albuquerque, but instead I decided to invest my energy into bringing in a beautiful Charles Brand Intaglio press and all the chemistry for copper plates into my studio. Fitting a 53-foot truck in the busy streets of Montreal in the middle of construction and moving this 2880-pound mastodon to my space is going to be a challenge, but another fun endeavor that should keep me busy this autumn if business is slow!

Luther Davis
Luther Davis

Last stop: Brooklyn. After months in shutdown in the US’s worst hit area, Luther Davis and staff prepare to open the studio as the State of New York oversees a recovery. Along with meeting a whole new set of protocols at work, he shares some thoughts on how to take the lessons we’ve been shown over the last few weeks and months and use them to change for the good. Well said, Luther.

LD: Our shop is gearing up for reopening next week. This has been a long awaited moment and the preparation needed to meet the state’s mandates is common sense, but game changing. As a shop, we are operating on staggered shifts and each employee is doing a health assessment and check in, including temperature reading, before coming into the shop. We have set aside an area for customers and deliveries that can be easily sanitized with EPA-recognized, Coronavirus-killing products. While 60-percent-and-above isopropyl alcohol is nearly impossible for us to get, ethanol is arguably a better sanitizer for enveloped viruses, and we are fortunate to share the building with a distillery. So, we have high hopes that if our denatured alcohol (ethanol) supplies ever run out we can borrow some from our neighbors. So much has happened since we first discussed our shops closing and working from home. The murder of George Floyd is affecting my community in major ways. Every day that I focus on how to reopen our shop, I am also trying to be conscious of how I can be a better human being, parent, mentor, employer, citizen, and educator. Ultimately, this means I need to be open to being a student again while being humble, gentle, and kind.

Andy MacDougall is a screen printing trainer and consultant based on Vancouver Island in Canada, and a member of the Academy of Screen & Digital Printing Technology. If you have production problems you’d like to see him address in “Shop Talk,” email your comments and questions to andy@squeegeeville.com.

Other Articles in the "Come Together" Series

Come Together (original online article)

Come Together: "Nick Danger"

Come Together:  Edward Cook

Come Together: Beppe Quaglia, Michel Caza, and Gemma Berenguer

Come Together: Ahmed Bautista

Come Together: Iris Sautier, Luther Davis, and Tom Davenport

 

View more from this Screen Printing issue