With coronavirus cases surging in the U.S., many people are concluding they'll have to learn to live with the virus until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available — and that's led to a huge increase in orders for plexiglass and other types of clear plastic barriers meant to keep us safe.
"Demand is ridiculously high," said Jackie Yong, a 17-year employee of J. Freeman, Inc., a plastics distributor and sign supplier in Boston whose products include plexiglass and other plastic sheets. "Everything's just been flying out the door."
That's the story of the plexiglass industry these days: As many businesses struggle to reopen safely during the pandemic, from nail salons to barbershops to restaurants to casinos, they're installing protective barriers to try to prevent employees and customers from catching the virus.
"People are afraid they're going to lose their businesses, and so they're trying to put up as much protection as possible so that when people come, they'll feel safe," said J. Freeman, Inc., owner Jacqueline Freeman.
"We've had people asking for massive amounts — 400, 500, 600 sheets," she added. "Before it even hits our building, it's gone."
The crush of orders began in March, after the World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic and recommended using glass or plastic barriers to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
"Quickly, overnight, demand increased roughly by four times what it was the prior year," said Craig Saunders, president of the International Association of Plastics Distribution, a trade group. "And this wasn't a local demand in North America; this was a global demand."
According to Saunders, that has created six-month waits for the product and more orders than manufacturers can keep up with. He said demand will likely remain strong as states continue their phased reopenings, and as schools and colleges try to bring students back to campus safely.
"There just is no material in the pipeline," he added. "Everything that is received in is already confirmed for and sold almost immediately."
As demand outstrips supply, some prices for plastic sheets, which are generically known as acrylics and polycarbonates, are also rising. According to J. Freeman, Inc., one of its vendors recently wanted five times the usual price.
This worldwide clamor for barriers has been a lifeline for what had been a declining industry.
"This was previously a sector that was actually quite unprofitable, whereas now it really is the sector to be in," said Katherine Sale of Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, which gathers data on global commodities markets.
According to Sale, demand for plastics had been shrinking in the decade prior to the pandemic. That's partly because as products such as flat-screen televisions get thinner, for example, they don't require as much plastic to be manufactured. And when the pandemic shut down the construction and automotive industries, that reduced demand for clear plastic car parts like headlights and taillights.
But the rush for protective plastic barriers has been a boon for manufacturers, which are already booking orders for 2021, Sale said.
"And if they could produce more, they said that they could sell ten times what they're currently selling, if not more," she added.
"It's completely out of hand," said Russ Miller, store manager of TAP Plastics in San Leandro, California, which has 18 locations on the West Coast. "In 40 years of selling plastic sheets, I've never seen anything like this."
TAP's sales were up more than 200 percent in April, according to Miller, and he said the only reason its sales have declined since then is the company has no more full plastic sheets to sell, even though earlier this year TAP ordered a massive supply that it had expected to last for the rest of the year.
"That was gone in two months," Miller said. "A year's supply, gone in two months!"
Meanwhile, the uses for clear plastic barriers are becoming more creative and unusual. Miller said he's seen designs for protective guards and shields that he considers "bizarre," including one that mounts on your chest, curves in front of your face, and is meant to be worn while walking around.
A French designer has created a lampshade-shaped clear plastic dome that hangs over the heads of guests at restaurants. And an Italian designer has made a clear plastic box for social distancing on beaches — basically, a plexiglass cabana.
It may be difficult to envision some of these inventions becoming part of society, but if the pandemic can't be controlled, contraptions that might have previously stretched the imagination may become a reality.
For instance, Miller said his company is now selling plastic sheets to numerous schools, which are developing ways to separate students during lunchtime and in other group settings.
'"They wanted dividers for nap time," recalled Miller, "which was kind of sad."
But to exist during a pandemic without a vaccine, that may be what the world has to look like.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
With coronavirus cases surging in the U.S., many people have concluded we're going to have to learn to live with the virus until a vaccine is widely available. That has led to huge demand for plastic barriers meant to keep us safe, as NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer reports.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: J. Freeman Inc. is a plastics distributor in Boston that sells one of the hottest products in today's world - Plexiglas and other types of clear plastic sheets.
JACKIE YONG: So let me take you around out back, and we'll take a look. This is our warehouse. We have...
PFEIFFER: Employee Jackie Yong points out where those sheets would typically be stored. They come in a range of sizes and are generically called acrylic and polycarbonate.
YONG: This right here up against the wall is usually where we keep our 4x8 3/8ths clear acrylic. We would have 40, 50, sheets laying up against this wall, and they're gone completely.
PFEIFFER: As if on cue, another employee shouts out a question.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jack.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How many sheets of the quarter-inch do we have left to sell?
YONG: Zero. All sold out.
PFEIFFER: That's the story of the Plexiglas industry these days. As many businesses struggle to reopen safely during the pandemic, they're installing clear plastic barriers to protect employees and customers from catching the virus - nail salons, barbershops, retail stores, restaurants, casinos. The crush of orders began in March after the World Health Organization recommended glass or plastic barriers to reduce exposure to COVID-19.
CRAIG SAUNDERS: Quickly overnight, demand increased roughly by four times what it was the prior year.
PFEIFFER: Craig Saunders is president of the International Association of Plastics Distribution, a trade group.
SAUNDERS: And this wasn't a local demand in North America, this was a global demand.
PFEIFFER: Saunders said that's created six-month waits for the product and more orders than manufacturers can keep up with.
SAUNDERS: There just is no material in the pipeline. Everything that is received in is already confirmed for and sold almost immediately.
PFEIFFER: And he said demand is likely to remain strong as states continue their phased reopenings. Meanwhile, some prices are rising. J. Freeman Inc. in Boston said one of its vendors recently wanted five times the usual price for clear plastic sheets. This worldwide clamor for barriers has been a lifeline for what had been a declining industry.
KATHERINE SALE: This was previously a sector that was actually quite unprofitable, whereas now it really is the sector to be in.
PFEIFFER: Katherine Sale is with Independent Commodity Intelligence Services, which gathers market data. She said before the pandemic, demand for clear plastics had been shrinking. That's because as flat-screen TVs get skinnier, for example, they don't require as much material. But now plastic sheet manufacturers are so busy, they're already booking orders for 2021.
SALE: And if they could produce more, they said that they could sell 10 times what they're currently selling if not more.
SAUNDERS: The demand is - we are trying to compare it to something like the Beanie Baby demand was kind of a frenzy. This is a hundred times more of a frenzy.
PFEIFFER: Russ Miller is store manager of TAP Plastics in San Leandro, Calif., which has 18 West Coast locations. He says the uses for see-through barriers keep getting more creative and unusual, like designs for protective guards and shields that he calls bizarre.
RUSS MILLER: A lot of them are mounting on your chest, and they're curved in front of your face. And you wear this as you walk around. You know, I can't see it getting to this.
PFEIFFER: Actually, you never know. Already, a French designer has created a lampshade-shaped, clear plastic dome that suspends over the heads of restaurant guests. An Italian designer has made a clear plastic box for social distancing on beaches. Picture a Plexiglas cabana. And Miller acknowledges some types of barriers that may have previously stretched the imagination might become a reality.
MILLER: We're now doing a lot of schools. They're trying to figure out ways to separate the students during lunchtime. Or the preschools came in, and they wanted dividers for naptime, which was kind of sad.
PFEIFFER: But to exist during a pandemic without a vaccine, that may be what the world has to look like. Sacha Pfeiffer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.