It’s clear: Plastic sheets are in demand as virus barrier

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 29, 2020 10:53 AM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 4:00 AM CT

The nonprofit calls itself A Step Ahead Foundation because it helps women achieve their goals by avoiding unplanned pregnancies.

But the name took on extra meaning this week. A Step Ahead had a Grinder Taber & Grinder construction crew installing clear-plastic barriers between open desks in its 1,500-square-foot office in Crosstown Concourse.

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The project likely puts the organization ahead of most other businesses and nonprofits in preparing for the new normal: The time when employees can return to the office once COVID-19’s stranglehold on society has weakened.

The early action might also have helped ensure the organization could get plastic sheeting.

Grocery stores, hardware stores and other essential businesses already have been installing the material at point-of-sale stations as barriers between cashiers and customers.

But the trend for such projects is still in its “infancy. We are just getting started,” said Bret James, Grinder Taber & Grinder’s field superintendent for the A Step Ahead retrofit.

Already, clear-plastic sheets – one well known brand name is Plexiglas – have “flown out of the supply houses,” James said. “Getting the quantities and the dimensions you want has started to become challenging. And the prices reflect it, also.”

The phone at Indelco Plastics Corp. in northeast Memphis started heating up last week when the local and national conversation turned to a timetable for reopening businesses.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Griffin Whitehead, inside sales and operations manager for the supplier. “Thursday last week, every phone call we got, every person who came in here, was looking for Plexiglas.”

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From what Whitehead could tell, the construction companies wanted the sturdy sheets to make shields, as in barriers between cashiers and customers, he said.

The material is made from acrylic or polycarbonate, and polycarbonate is the strongest and most popular type for the virus-caused retrofit projects, Whitehead said.

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By Tuesday, April 28, Indelco’s supplies of the polycarbonate had dwindled to about 20 quarter-inch-thick sheets and about 10 of the one-eighth-inch thick sheets.

A Step Ahead’s 15 employees have been working from home for six weeks and there’s no set time for them to return to the office. Still, founder Claudia Haltom and executive director Nikki Gibbs decided to go ahead and retrofit the office with the clear barriers. 

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“There’s no vaccine and we know (COVID-19) will be around for a while,” Gibbs said. “Rather than panic we decided to pivot. And that’s just being proactive and making sure we are meeting the needs at this particular time.”

In addition to the barriers, the Step Ahead office has purchased face masks and gloves for employees, removed some work stations to keep staff members at least six feet apart, and ordered trifold, clear-plastic stands that staff members can use when they go out into the community.

James, the Grinder Taber & Grinder field superintendent, credited Haltom for insisting the clear plastic be installed in a way that did not detract from the office’s award-winning design.

He and lead carpenter Michael Hunt used thin, steel cable to hang the sheets from the ceiling. They also used cable to anchor the material from the desks below. The technique creates a more minimalist appearance – the barriers seem to float in the air – than if substantial metal or wood frames had been used.

James believes businesses are using clear-plastic material instead of glass because it’s lighter and easier to remove.

“The whole industry seems to be using” the material, he said. Businesses don’t know if the alterations will need to be permanent. 

“It’s something that can be taken down,” James said.

COVID-19 in Memphis and Shelby County: April


COVID-19 social distancing A Step Ahead Foundation Grinder Taber Grinder
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey covers business news for The Daily Memphian. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He's worked in journalism for 40 years and has lived in Midtown for 36 years.


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