As plexiglass barriers become the future of indoor dining, experts worry they may not be enough

As plexiglass barriers become the future of indoor dining, experts worry they may not be enough
Protective barriers have become commonplace at supermarket checkout lines, gyms, and nail salons around the country.Reuters
  • Plexiglass shields, barriers, and bubbles could become the norm for indoor dining during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Restaurants and other businesses have been ordering the barriers in droves since March.
  • But experts and consumers both question whether the protective measures are enough, as the virus can live on surfaces for up to 72 hours.

A Plexiglass bubble could be the future of dining during the pandemic.

It's called the Plex'Eat, and it's designed to go over patrons' heads as they eat while it hangs from the ceiling. French designer Christophe Gernigon claims it can help protect customers from the coronavirus while they eat indoors.

The chandelier-like shades will cost business owners almost $200 each.
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And it's one of the many plastic barriers companies are buying to ensure both customers and employees feel protected from transmission of the coronavirus.

But as consumer demand rises for the barriers, the question is whether they are enough.

Coronavirus-safety barriers have been in high demand since March. Transparent screens made from acrylic or plastic now surround everyone from cashiers to nail techs to gym-goers.
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As well as forming a barrier against potentially infected droplets, the screens can also help enforce social distancing in spaces where it's difficult to maintain 6 feet of separation.

John Short, the owner of ePlastics in San Diego, has never experienced demand like this before. "There's so much time we're putting in here, we're putting in a weekends, putting in after hours splitting shifts to be able to try and facilitate the need. And yeah, we never saw this coming," Short told Business Insider Today.
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The family-owned business, which has been around since 1914, designs, molds, and assembles plastic products into a variety of shapes and sizes.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, ePlastics has been supplying plastic shields and barriers to both small businesses and big players like NASA and the Navy. Short said acrylic sales have shot up 50% since the start of the pandemic, and 40% of his business is now dedicated to coronavirus protection barriers.

The increase in orders began in March, after the World Health Organization recommended using glass or plastic barriers to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
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"We had to adjust and we had to adjust quickly because we weren't sure if that was something that was going to pass through our nation and our city within, you know, two weeks, three weeks, a month," Short said. "So we, as things started to progress, we started to book things out."

While plastic barriers aren't required by law in the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration suggests workplaces install physical barriers, while the CDC recommends dividers be used in conjunction with other prevention and control measures, like wearing masks.

Before COVID-19, the market for plastic sheets had been on the decline, mainly due to the slowdown of brick-and-mortar retail businesses, which used to be huge buyers.
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That's now been turned around, with sales having increased two to three times the norm.

"We're running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet the demand," Craig Saunders, president of the International Association of Plastics Distribution, told Business Insider Today.

While plastic screens and sneeze guards have become part of the new normal, alongside hand sanitizer and masks, experts remind us that they can offer no guarantee against the spread of coronavirus.
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"Plexiglass is just another barrier," Wael Al-Delaimy, an epidemiologist at the University of California San Diego, said. "By itself, it might not be enough unless the contact is completely isolated."

"Now let's say a teller in a shop has the plexiglass. Yes, it definitely helps if somebody comes in and it doesn't have a mask, or is going to cough or sneeze, then that limits the droplets that can be inhaled. But it's not always the situation, like in a gym." Al-Delaimy added that it's possible for the barriers to become sources for the virus itself. Although the coronavirus is most commonly transmitted through the air, scientists have found it can be detected on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours.
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Another concern is the potential for huge amounts of waste once the screens are no longer needed. While not all plastic is easily recyclable, acrylic is a type of thermoplastic that can be broken down and repurposed. At ePlastics, Short has welcomed customers to bring back acrylic sheets when they're done using them so they can be recycled properly.

As businesses reopen, plastic screens and pods may well be on the front lines in the fight for consumer confidence.

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