TORONTO — Walking through Toronto's Pearson International Airport every week with his mask and grey duffel bag, Gilad Levy could easily be mistaken for a passenger.
But Levy doesn't have a plane ticket and he's not carrying a change of clothes. Instead, his bag is stuffed full of hand sanitizers, and cloth and disposable masks to refill personal protective equipment (PPE) vending machines he has at airports and malls across the city.
"The machines are there to solve problems," Levy told The Canadian Press.
"They basically help the people that didn't have a mask with them, or they just dropped it on the floor and now they don't want to put it back on their face, or they're going for a long flight and they didn't think to take more for the ride."
Levy, who works as a general manager at a payments company and once was an emergency services worker in New York, came up with his machine venture after COVID-19 started spreading across Canada.
He was eager to do something to help keep the country safe and realized he could draw on his past and current job to help others.
Knowing PPE is one of the best ways to help contain the virus but that it's easy to misplace or forget to pack a mask or sanitizer, he dreamed up the vending machines.
A contact from the payments industry helped him track down the machines, but getting the PPE to stock them with was a challenge.
"In the beginning, it was a little harder," Levy said, referencing the PPE shortages Canada and much of the world faced in March and April.
"But with time, there were a lot of options in the market."
Levy didn't want just any PPE though.
"Whatever I could have made in Canada I did. The hand sanitizers are made in Canada and all the reusables all made in Canada," he said.
"Whatever had to come from other countries like China is certified here in Canada to make sure that they were made in the proper way."
Alongside an array of masks and sanitizers, he also tracked down kits that package both with gloves.
Once supplies were sourced, it didn't take much convincing to get mall and airport owners to welcome the machines, especially as Toronto mandated masks be worn in indoor spaces.
Oxford Properties, which operates several malls in Canada, said it has two of the machines at Yorkdale, five at Square One, one at Scarborough Town Centre and one at Canada Square.
The company has been so pleased with their performance that its in discussions to expand the program to additional malls and office towers it runs, said spokesman Daniel O'Donnell in an email.
While Levy has been encouraged by how many people are buying PPE from the machines so far, he says, "it's not the most profitable yet because you still don't have so many people at the malls or in the airports."
But that is changing.
On his weekly airport visits, he notices people are beginning to venture out more and when they do, they find his machines at the ready.
"Most people will bring their own PPE, but there will always be a percentage in the community that is not ready, that is caught off guard and this helps them."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press