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A touchdown for mask effort

By HONG XIAO in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-04-03 11:29


A touchdown for mask effort

By HONG XIAO in New York

The New England Patriots plane delivers N95 masks from Shenzhen, China to Logan International Airport to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. [Photo/Agencies]

When the New England Patriots' team plane landed at Boston Logan International Airport on Thursday evening, not a single football player was on board.

Instead, the Boeing 767 touched down with more than 1 million much-needed N95 face masks ordered from China. The beneficiaries of the masks will be front-line health care workers and first responders fighting the coronavirus pandemic in Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island.

Massachusetts, with a population of nearly 7 million, now has 7,738 confirmed coronavirus cases. Governor Charlie Baker called the masks a "vital shipment at the most critical time".

The story of how a plane used on road trips by a National Football League team began when Patriots' owner Robert Kraft offered use of the jet for the mission to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Also crucial was the assistance of the Chinese consul general in New York.

"We are able to secure this big order of masks from China, which is a great thing, and we are all extremely pleased to have it finally here," Baker said while providing an update on the commonwealth's ongoing response to COVID-19 on Thursday.

"I want to thank the People's Republic of China for going to the lengths they went to, to make the humanitarian aid trip possible," he said.

Massachusetts' efforts to secure the masks included a weeks-long saga traversing governments, embassies and private partners.

"This was a collaboration between the US and Chinese governments and private sector folks, and required a lot of support from many entities and agencies along the way," Baker said.

As the pandemic spreads in the United States, Baker's administration has been concerned about the state's mask supply, and about two weeks ago, he had struck a deal to acquire more than a million masks from Chinese manufacturers.

However, the officials had to figure out how to get the massive load of masks shipped out of China in the shortest time.

The governor also got help from his friend, Jonathan Kraft, son of the team's owner and Patriots president and also chairman of the board at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The Kraft family also agreed to donate $2 million, approximately half the cost of the goods, and Robert Kraft personally purchased 300,000 N95 masks for New York state.

Kraft wanted to help New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in appreciation of his leadership during the pandemic, ABC News reported, citing a source.

Other than resolving issues about the plane's capability to make a lengthy journey along with limited cargo space, other obstacles were obtaining permission for the plane to land in China, and China's 14-day quarantine rule, which would apply to the plane's crew.

To seek permission for the plane to land, Baker, the US State Department and others drafted letters to China's consul general in New York, Huang Ping.

The letters, dated March 24 to 30, sought waivers to allow the mission and stated that no crew members would leave the aircraft.

The consul general replied in writing that there were would be "maximum facilitation to make it happen for humanitarian reasons to help fight COVID-19 in Massachusetts".

"I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to our partners. ... Ambassador Huang Ping played a major role," Baker said

By the evening of March 27, the mission received waivers from China to land without quarantine, but the flight crew still needed visas.

Under Huang's direction, the consulate made an exception and opened over the weekend to process the visas.

On Wednesday, after a layover in Alaska, the six-time Super Bowl champion's 767 landed at Shenzhen Bao'an International Airport.

The order of 1.7 million N95 masks was filled by various manufacturers across China, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The products were gathered, counted, inspected and then quickly ushered through customs with assistance from Chinese tech giant Tencent, at the request of the US side.

A crew of more than a dozen employees was mobilized to rush the order.

The crew stayed with the goods overnight to secure them before transporting them to the Shenzhen airport and shuttling them through customs.

Local officials in Guangdong Province, Massachusetts's sister state in China, offered on-the-spot assistance with customs clearance.

No member of the crew was allowed to leave the aircraft, the airport's ground staff helped loaded the massive number of boxes and completed the grab-and-go process within only 2 hours and 40 minutes, setting a new record of the airport's operation.

The plane stayed on the ground for two 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 could fit. The rest, which are being held by Tencent, will be transported shortly on another shipment, according to Baker.

"We are grateful the Patriots' plane was able to land in China, load up and return quickly to the US," Baker said, praising China's humanitarian efforts.

"Many agree that this should be a time for us to be united, not fighting against each other," said Consul General Huang Ping.

"The Chinese people sincerely hope that the United States contains the spread of the epidemic at an early date, so as to reduce the losses inflicted by the disease upon the American people," Huang said.

"The story of this remarkable delivery is a window into the ongoing bilateral coordination to acquire life-saving equipment needed to battle the coronavirus outbreak in the US," the consulate in New York said in a statement.

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