One month and three days after the United States declared a national emergency in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 140,000 lives, the cigar world remains far from normal. Some of the factories that produce cigars by hand are closed, and many of those that have reopened are operating at reduced capacity, reshaped to deal with the virus that has changed all aspects of our world.
Ninety-nine percent of the handmade cigars shipped to the U.S. annually are produced in three countries: Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. The editors of Cigar Aficionado reached out to many of the producers from those countries, along with those who still make cigars in the U.S., to find out the status of their cigarmaking operations, and how things have changed due to this ongoing crisis.
The Dominican Republic
Some of the factories in the cigar world’s second-largest producer have begun to reopen. There have been 196 deaths in the Dominican Republic attributed to the Coronavirus as this story was published.
After nearly a month of closure, La Flor Dominicana reopened this week—but under far different conditions than before. “We started today with about 90 people only,” Litto Gomez told Cigar Aficionado on Wednesday. “Everybody separated, lots of space, cleaning stations everywhere, masks, glasses.” The factory is operating at roughly 25 percent of its normal capacity. Most of the work is being done in the packing area, moving out cigars that were made before the factory closed in reaction to the pandemic.
Gomez is experimenting with this setup, and may expand. “We still have plenty of room to add more workers safely,” he said. “You can’t do what you used to do before.”
In La Romana, home to the massive Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. factory, where Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann, Montecristo and many other cigars are made, operations resumed on April 6. “On a very limited basis, and with a very small group of employees and working closely with the ministry of labor and following the government requirements for social distancing,” said Rafael Nodal, head of product capability for Tabacalera U.S.A. Tabacalera de Garcia is one of the world’s largest cigar factories.
General Cigar Dominicana also reopened on April 6. “We currently have 60 percent of the workforce back at work. We are hoping to be opening further sections of production in the coming days and weeks,” said company spokesperson Victoria McKee. The factory rolls Macanudo, La Gloria Cubana and many other cigar brands.
EPC Cigar Co.’s products are made at the company’s Tabacalera La Alianza factory in Santiago, which remains closed. It may reopen on May 7. “New procedures will be in place. We will follow expert’s guidance at all times,” said Lissette Perez-Carrillo. “As we learn more about the virus, we can better adapt to this new environment. We will take all steps to make sure before all that our workers are safe.”
Arturo Fuente, the producer of Fuente Fuente OpusX, Ashton, Diamond Crown and many other cigars, began shutting down its production on March 19. Its original plan was to reopen on April, 3, but it was still closed as this story was posted.
The world’s leading producer of handmade cigars had reported only one death by Coronavirus as this story was published. Many of the factories there are open, and even more will be opening soon.
“In Nicaragua, we are going on week two closed,” said Rocky Patel. “We are opening up the factory on Monday.” Patel said he had plenty of cigars that were already rolled awaiting shipment, and the company has resorted to more expensive air shipments to get out some of its inventory. “Once the factory reopens, we will have containers coming again,” said Patel. “We’ll be implementing standards before we open. When we open, it’s going to be at a much smaller capacity, spaced out.”
My Father Cigars, the source of Flor de Las Antillas, My Father and many other smokes, remains shut down. “Currently the factory is closed,” said Janny Garcia, one of the owners. “We will be monitoring the situation day to day to evaluate when we will be able to reopen.”
“Our Nicaraguan factory was closed last week like every other business in the country for Semana Santa, the holiday week before Easter, but it fully reopened [Monday],” said Drew Newman, general counsel for J.C. Newman. “We are working hard to protect the health and safety of our employees. In Nicaragua, we have added more handwashing stations and require employees to wash their hands before and after every break in the day. We also have a full-time nurse and a doctor on call who are closely monitoring the health of our cigar rollers in Nicaragua.”
AJ Fernandez is one of the busier cigarmakers, and his factories in Nicaragua reopened this week. Among the many smokes made at his factories in the country are the Aging Room Quattro Nicaragua Maestro, Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year. “Both factories reopened on Monday and both are at full capacity,” said Frankie Santos, sales and marketing director at the company.
The Joya de Nicaragua factory is partially open, but is shipping normally. They are working tobacco because “fermentation and conditioning doesn’t stop,” said Juan Martínez, president of the company, which has been making cigars in Nicaragua for 52 years. “We are shipping this week all our orders,” he said. “We have enough safety inventories of rolled cigars in our aging rooms to keep our roleros and boncheras home one extra week.”
While the factory is operational, serious changes have been implemented. “As Nicaragua is moving up the curve, we are implementing all measures, including: facemasks for all employees, alcohol and soap available to all throughout the building; use of disposable gloves when appropriate; twice-daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols where possible; temperature taking to every person coming into the factory; no outside visitors; social distancing in offices, cafeterias and maintaining no less than six feet between persons,” he said.
The expectation is that Joya de Nicaragua will be fully open by next week. “When we go back fully we expect to have permanent health protocols in place, at least for the next 12 to 18 months. Tougher measures but always focused on the safety of our people,” said Martínez.
Padrón Cigars reopened its Nicaraguan factory on Monday, after a two-week hiatus. Oliva Cigar Co. is also back in business after the Holy Week vacation.
“We are fully operational with social distancing, sanitizing, and temperature monitoring procedures in place,” said Cory Bappert, CEO of Oliva Cigar Co.
Plasencia reopened its Nicaragua operations on Monday, “following all the protocols to ensure the safety of all our people, which is the main thing at the moment,” said Nestor Andres Plasencia. Aganorsa Leaf is also back in business. “We are performing health examinations prior to entry, checking temperature,” said Terence Reilly. “Also cleaning and other sanitary procedures are being increased in terms of frequency.”
Agroindustrial Nicaraguense de Tabacos S.A. is located in Condega. Nicaragua, and it’s the source of many cigars sold by Ventura Cigar Co. “They have returned back to work after the Holy Week break,” said Michael Giannini of Ventura. “They are constantly in sanitizing mode and following all the safety methods we are all following. As far as the future they are monitoring closely.”
Honduras has had 35 deaths blamed on Coronavirus. The country has had the most severe restrictions of any of the major producers, and all its cigar factories closed on March 17, part of a nationwide shutdown on all nonessential businesses. That shutdown was originally planned to end after a week, but they continue to this day, nearly one-month after going into effect.
“In our factories in Honduras we are still waiting for the authorization of the government to be able to start again. At the moment we only have some people in the fermentation areas to guarantee the optimal process for our tobacco,” said Plasencia, who makes cigars in both Honduras and Nicaragua.
“Over the weekend, the government in Honduras reversed its decision to allow re-opening of production,” said McKee of General Cigar, which makes Punch and other cigars in Honduras. “Instead, the period of closedown has been extended two weeks starting Monday, April 13.”
Patel said Honduras was hoping to resume production by May 1, which would be a six-week delay. “They don’t know for sure,” he said. “We’re trying to work with the labor unions and the government, and our number one priority is the safety of the people.”
Few cigars are made by hand in the U.S., which has been impacted by this pandemic harder than any other country in the world, with more than 33,000 deaths at last count.
J.C. Newman still makes a few cigars by hand in Tampa, Florida, as well as machine-made cigars. “In Tampa, we are working alternating shifts, which allows us to spread people out and for appropriate social distancing, and everyone in the factory is wearing a mask,” said Newman.
The Garcias operate a small cigar factory from their Miami-area headquarters, rolling Tatuaje brown label and other smokes. That operation remains closed, said Garcia, although she said the workers are still being paid.
El Titan de Bronze, the tiny cigar factory on Miami’s Calle Ocho, shut down its operation, so no rolling is taking place and the shop/factory is closed to visitors. The company is shipping online orders once a week, working off existing inventory.
With reporting from Chris Esposito, Gregory Mottola, Andrew Nagy and Thomas Pappalardo.