Do plexiglass COVID barriers really work, and what will become of them?

Coronavirus

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(NEXSTAR) – Along with fist bumps and remote work, another legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the plexiglass fortification of businesses, airports and government buildings.

With the rate of COVID-19 infections falling in the United States, where a vaccine is readily available, coffee shop owners, school administrators and others may be wondering just how long they will keep the barriers in place.

Bloomberg reports that sales of the material tripled during the pandemic, reaching roughly $750 million.

The only problem, however, is that it’s hard to find evidence that the miles of barriers have effectively prevented COVID-19 transmission.

Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the coronavirus was spreading on surfaces and through droplets between people at close range – droplets plexiglass barriers are designed to catch. The CDC only fully acknowledged that it could also be transmitted through the air at distances greater than six feet last month.

Howard A. Stone, a professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University, worked with the Met Orchestra of New York in December, 2020 to study how a singer’s breath – captured with an infrared camera – moves away from the body.

His team then used a fog machine to exam how a plexiglass barrier might protect someone on the other side – results were mixed.

“From my perspective, if you’re on the other side of the barrier from someone, you are partially protected because the movement of the air is disrupted by the barrier,” he told NJ.com. “But nonetheless, it can get around.”

Stone pointed out that the air that made it behind the barrier was mixed, suggesting that the plexiglass might help dilute virus-contaminated air.

“On the other hand, if you’re inside one of these barriers with someone, and they happen to be infected and you’re not aware of it, then you’re exposed even more to a higher concentration of what’s coming out, because the air inside one of these barriers won’t mix as well with its surroundings,” Stone said.

In essence, the plastic tents over “outside” restaurant tables, for instance, could be trapping the very virus they were designed to protect against.

A study published by the CDC examining the efficacy of tools to combat COVID-19 in Georgia elementary schools found that ventilation and the proper use of masks, rather than barriers, helped prevent the spread of the virus.

In guidance from the University of Washington, a barrier can, however, be effective as one component of a larger strategy to prevent virus transmission if installed in a way that doesn’t block ventilation or cause other safety risks.

The future of our plexiglass barriers

With states across the country opening up and shedding mandates for businesses and public spaces, what’s next for the plexiglass?

Iowa State University said in a news release that the school is already working on a second life for the acrylic materials used as barriers, which aren’t easily recyclable. Industrial design students have created plans for rechargeable laptop desks, class rings and art installations, among other things.

“It was an awake nightmare, that people will start chucking them into the landfill,” Katie Baumgarn, classroom scheduling specialist for Iowa State University Facilities Planning and Management said.

Some businesses are also trying to head off a recycling nightmare when people realize the barriers can’t just be dropped off in residential bins.

Faulkner’s, a plastic supply company in Miami, is hosting a recycling drive for business owners who want to drop off the barriers. The acrylic product can be broken through a process called chemical recycling to create new items, but many city recycling problems don’t accept the material.

Pandemic task force member and air quality expert Marwa Zaatari says plexiglass barriers may be treated like the COVID-19 pandemic regulations currently being rolled back as infection rates drop.

Zaatari told Bloomberg she thinks it will only take “a matter of weeks to remove all the plexiglass. The question is what they’re going to do with it.”

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