If you had “NFL team plane brings N95 masks from China to Massachusetts” on your list of “improbable things that may happen during the coronavirus outbreak,” congratulations. The Wall Street Journal has a remarkable, tense tick-tock account of the process that got the New England Patriots’ custom-branded airplane to China and back to Massachusetts with more than 1 million of the masks that have been in short supply for health care workers treating patients with COVID-19. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker had a deal in place to get the much-needed masks from a supplier in China. But getting them back to the Bay State was no small task:
The effort began with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who was concerned about the state’s mask supply and, two weeks ago, believed he had struck a deal to acquire more than a million of them from a collection of Chinese manufacturers. But officials had to figure out how to get them shipped out of China at a time when unusual cargo shipments out of the country can be especially tricky.
“I just have to get them here,” he told a longtime friend.
Jonathan Kraft, president of the Patriots organization — who also happens to be chairman of the board at Massachusetts General Hospital — was the “longtime friend” Baker reached out to. His father, Robert Kraft, is the Patriots’ owner. Before they could get through the hurdles of flying to China, they had to make sure the plane could handle the international flight.
By last Friday night, the crew had moved to Wilmington, Ohio, because the plane needed an avionics upgrade for the international trip. The mission received waivers from China to land and do so without quarantining—nobody would be on board besides the necessary flight crew—but they were told the crew still needed visas. So the entire group scrambled to a local pharmacy and took pictures for the application. The pictures were flown to New York to be taken to the Chinese consulate, and then flown back to Ohio.
But that was the “easy” part. Getting permission to land the plane in China, retrieve the masks, and then fly them back to Massachusetts required cooperation at multiple levels and included the Chinese embassy and tech company Tencent, which helped secure the masks and bring them to the Shenzhen airport. Chinese officials gave the crew of the plane a three-hour window from the time they landed to the time they would be allowed to leave Shenzhen without being quarantined.
By early Wednesday morning on the East Coast, the Patriots’ 767 had landed in Shenzhen from Alaska. It stayed grounded for 2 hours and 57 minutes—just within the three-hour window the crew was given. Because cargo wasn’t allowed on parts of the passenger plane, only 1.2 million of the masks fit. The rest, which is being held securely by Tencent, will be transported shortly on another shipment.
The Patriots are often the heels of the NFL because it’s easy for those outside of New England to hate on a team that has won six Super Bowl titles. But according to the WSJ, the Krafts agreed to pay $2 million toward the cost of the masks and are sending some to New York (home of the Jets, one of the Pats’ biggest rivals).
While it’s probably not going to convert any Jets or Steelers fans to root for the Patriots, this story is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at, as corny as it sounds, the power of teamwork during a crisis. Check it out here.