Tucson Laser Cutter Finds Edge In Coronavirus Sneeze Guards

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Danny Wicentowski
·4 min read
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TUCSON, AZ — Sneeze guards are everywhere. They are in your supermarket checkout lanes and fast-food drive-thrus, your pharmacy and your bank branch. They are transparent yet impossible to ignore. They are on billboards advertising caution. They are reminders that even the most normal things are still not normal.

But while Arizona's businesses begin to reopen, the sneeze guards — acrylic barriers meant to block the spray of coronavirus-carrying droplets — are staying up. And that's keeping craftsmen like Jeremy Nichols busy.

"I haven't heard anyone say, 'We're going to knock this down next week,'" said Nichols, who has spent months pivoting his small business, Acrylic Display Systems, from laser-cutting and engraving to reach the vast and varied demands for plastic partitions.

With more parts of public life restarting, it's not just medical staff buying personal protective equipment or retail businesses installing barriers to separate their clerks from customers.

"We're going to start seeing the need for partitions at every desk at school, computer labs, libraries," he said. "It's everywhere where you have possible interaction."

This isn't the market reacting to government edicts.

Gov. Doug Ducey's executive orders green-lighting businesses to reopen lack any sort of enforcement. They were issued not as mandates but "guidance" — meaning those contemplating reopening, from dentist offices to hair salons to school districts, are not being forced to wear masks or subdivide their interiors into sneeze-guarded cubicles.

But according to Nichols and other plexiglass dealers, the market has spoken.

Nichols has seen his business skyrocket. Before the outbreak, a typical order would require 10 pieces to be laser cut, or perhaps a custom engraving on a single object. These days, the orders are so large Nichols that is ordering his own materials in bulk.

"I started laser-cutting a bunch of masks to donate," he said, describing his journey in the sneeze guard business. "We did 200, then more, and then more. And I was like, 'Hold on.'"

It wasn't always a smooth process. Nichols spent two weeks experimenting with various mask designs and materials, and eventually he figured how to use his laser cutter as a tool for turning cloth and plastic into potentially life-saving masks. The first recipient of his products was his wife, a health care provider who, like many others, found herself working without sufficient PPE.

"That's when I realized it's going to be everywhere," Nichols said. "The spread was getting more serious, and I started getting different calls."

The calls came from banks, restaurants, nail salons, anesthesiologists, even the National Park Service. While the clients knew what they wanted, they didn't always know what they needed — one can't simply order a wall-size plastic sheet without accounting for how it will stay in place. For Nichols, this raised another question: How permanently should the sneeze guards be installed?

The answer varied. Some clients asked Nichols to use "semi-permanent" techniques — which don't include the use of screws to anchor the large plastic screens to walls, cubicles and desks.

"They don't want screws or holes into any kind of fixtures, and they basically say, 'I want it — you make it work.' That's the fun and creative part."

"I can't just use two-sided tape," he added with a laugh. "This has turned into some backyard engineering, and you just see what works."

Now, Nichols is trying to brainstorm for what comes next.

Affixing a plexiglass partition in front of a checkout lane is one thing, but what about in a classroom? Earlier this month, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman released a "road map" for schools as they prepare to welcome 1.1 million students back to classrooms in more than 2,000 buildings.

The recommendations, which echo the guidance from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, include placing partitions between desks and bathroom sinks.

How long will those partitions remain? America's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggested Sunday the nation would "get to some degree of real normality within a year or so."

In Arizona, Nichols thinks Americans will be seeing the world through plexiglass for the foreseeable future.

"This could be our daily lives for a while," he said. "This is where we are now."

This article originally appeared on the Tucson Patch