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Plexiglass sales soar as companies seek ways to protect employees

The New Normal: This is your life
The New Normal: This is your life 07:42

It's a good time to be in the plexiglass business. Makers of acrylic barriers, including sneeze and cough guards, cubicle extenders and personal face shields, have seen such a significant uptick in demand from stores, restaurants, offices and other businesses that have begun reopening that they can barely keep their products in stock. 

Plexiglass product manufacturers across the country are reporting up to a 30-fold spike in sales as public health experts release guidelines for retrofitting workspaces to make them safe for employees who are returning. The safety measures include recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that companies install transparent shields and physical barriers in offices to separate employees from one another — advice many employers appear to be heeding. 

Mark Canavarro, an office designer and founder and CEO of Obex Office Panel Extenders in Vista California, whose signature product is a patented cubicle wall extender, said sales have soared 3,000% 
since March. 

"In February, we averaged $30,000 to $40,000 per week in sales. We did over a million dollars last week," he told CBS MoneyWatch. 

His company was well-positioned to ramp up production when the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., shutting down workplaces that run the gamut from restaurants to law offices to barber shops. Obex's first orders came from major medical centers as well as small local dental offices. 

"Every business in every state in every type of industry is trying to protect their employees. You are seeing acrylic everywhere," Canavarro said of the sales jump. 

Makers of plexiglass shields say sales of their products have surged as companies aim to make workplaces safe for employees returning to reconfigured job sites in the coronavirus era. Courtesy of Obex

He did make one small design change to his best-selling privacy panels to satisfy customer requests for transparent, rather than opaque, barriers. 

"Most of the time our clients wanted visual privacy, but when all this hit we saw requests come in for clear acrylic screens and realized that was going to be something useful because there are millions of cubicles and office environments that are wide open," Canavarro said. 

A nation of sneeze guards

Earle Wheatley, president of Imaginative Materials, a COVID-19 shield fabricator in Tucson, Arizona, has also recorded an uptick in sales that he owes to the pandemic. For years the company has made clear, plexiglass display boxes for museums and galleries and sneeze guards for restaurants. Overall sales have quadrupled over the past three months, according to the company.

"It was natural for us to start making these partitions and shields for receptionists' desks and other office spaces," Wheatley said. 

One challenge is sourcing the raw material for the barriers. "We are on allocation — there are shortages. If I need 15 sheets by tomorrow, I will probably only get 10," Wheatley said.

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Jeremy Nichols, who owns Acrylic Display Systems, also in Tucson, said he's shifted from making display cases and signs to focusing on face shields. He contacts his suppliers every day in order to claim his truckload of material. 

"Everyone is waiting on the manufacturers," he said. 

Nichols typically purchases clear sheets from Optix, a supplier, and then laser cuts them into shields. Sales are up at least 200%, a fact he's conflicted about. 

"We always hope for good business, but not because of a pandemic, for crying out loud," Nichols said. 

"It's a battle every day to source it"

Canavarro of Obex typically fulfills orders within two to three weeks, a time frame that's now lengthened to five to seven weeks, despite working around the clock. 

"It's a battle every day to source it. We have someone working on getting loads of acrylic in because there has been a shortage. But our supplies are pretty good right now," he said. 

Wheatley wants to capitalize on the surge in demand while it remains strong. With so much uncertainty around the coronavirus — including whether such interior barriers are effective in preventing infections — sales could eventually taper off.

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Still, he expects some demand to remain no matter what. 

"In my opinion, about 25% of these installations will remain permanent, which is probably a good thing," Wheatley said. "Receptionists run into 50 to 100 people every day and it's not just COVID. There is all kinds of other stuff they could contract from people." 

Canavarro is also happy that his business is helping to restart the broader economy: "It's nice knowing our products are helping get people back to work," he said. 

Sure, he's happy sales are up — what businessperson wouldn't be? But he said it feels "weird" to be profiting off of a pandemic, and wouldn't be disappointed if sales returned to more normal levels. 

"That would mean we have a vaccine and everybody is back to where they were. What do you do with money if you can't go out and enjoy anything? I want to go to a movie or see a play or go on vacation," Canavarro said. 

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