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Offices and businesses are eager to safely reopen, driving demand for “social distancing barriers“—fixed or mobile countertop “sneeze guards” that prevent virus-laden droplets from passing between visitors and employees. But many of these solutions seem to have been rushed to market. They aren’t much better—or even much better looking—than the improvised hardware store solutions businesses threw together months ago. Let’s be blunt: These social distancing barriers look extremely temporary, even though everything we’re hearing from medical experts indicates that coronavirus is not at all a temporary problem.
“About 10 years ago, we shifted our mindset,” explains Total Security Solutions CEO Jim Richards. “As a company, we shifted our focus. We stopped thinking just about ‘stopping robberies,’ and expanded our view. We began to understand that this was bigger than robberies. It was about finding the best way to protect an organization’s most valuable asset: their people. We never imagined the situation we’re in today, where we were trying to stop a virus instead of bullets. But these social distancing barriers are obviously part of what it takes to keep people safe today.”
Rushed Solutions Take Advantage of Our Optimism
As a nation, we’re falling prey to “optimism bias.” This is an unconscious tendency to believe that we ourselves will suffer fewer losses or hardships—despite knowing facts that indicate otherwise.
Jim understands the temptation. “Everyone is eager to get ‘back to normal.’ I think that’s leading them to treat social distancing rules and barriers as temporary. As a result, businesses are buying and installing barriers that just aren’t going to hold up to daily use. These solutions don’t look great. They get in the way of people doing their jobs—which means people are constantly undermining them by leaning around or moving them out of the way—and the materials themselves aren’t durable.”
But we need to face facts: There is no indication that COVID-19 is temporary. At the very least, businesses will want to continue to use social distancing barriers through next spring. And it’s extremely likely that, once we have this virus under control, there’ll be some new infectious disease that demands similar barriers to prevent a new pandemic.
Unfortunately, quick-fix solutions have flooded the market.
“A lot of what we’re seeing,” Jim notes, “is pretty highly monetized. We see low-cost/low-weight materials, untested designs, loose fabricated standards, and poor installation. This is especially the case with the portable countertop sneeze guards we’re seeing. The acrylic is thin, the unit isn’t stable, and the way they’re slotted together, it isn’t going to hold up over time. They almost seem to be built to be disposable solutions.”
Built-to-Last Mobile Social Distancing Barriers
Because TSS grew out of the ballistic barrier industry, they have a tendency to “over-engineer” their products (for example, although their UL Level 3 doors are rated to stop three shots from a .44 Magnum, they can withstand 100 or more shots from a wide range of pistols and rifles—including assault rifles).
TSS approached building a mobile virus barrier system in the same spirit. They engineered their mobile barrier from 1/2-inch acrylic. This is significantly more rigid and durable than the 1/4-inch plastic favored by “disposable” sneeze guards. Other manufacturers avoid 1/2-inch acrylic because it’s harder to cut and polish than the thinner plastics they favor. But 1/2-inch acrylic is well within the capabilities of TSS’s shop, which regularly works with acrylic three times this thick. Owing to this experience, TSS was able to engineer a simple system with exceedingly tight tolerances. More rigid acrylic, precision fabricated for a snug fit, results in a significantly more stable barrier.
Most importantly, TSS designed this system for durability and reusability. “Even if there’s some medical miracle, and we get the vaccine for this current virus, and it gets distributed before fall—this isn’t the end of this sort of virus. The record for developing a vaccine and getting it out there is four years. The average is something like two decades. These viruses, they might take a break, but they aren’t going away. We wanted to make sure we were selling a solution that you could set up, take down, store for the season, take back out, set it back up, and repeat.”
Fixed Social Distancing Barriers: A Truly Permanent Solution
While reusable temporary solutions, like the VirusGuard™ – Mobile Barrier System, are a good fit for many businesses and offices, other organizations want a truly permanent solution.
“For us, this started with creating and installing a fixed virus-barrier system pro-bono, for the pharmacy here at our local hospital. Members of our production team have family connections in healthcare there. It was clearly a situation where we could increase safety and security quickly for those essential workers.”
TSS quickly realized that, even more so than ballistic security, creating a good permanent social distancing barrier requires expertise in custom barrier system design. “We’re fortunate. When we started out, decades ago, this industry was all about building ballistic barriers for the banking industry. When you walk into a bank, whatever’s there, you have to work around it to place a barrier that fits that environment. And you have to make it aesthetically pleasing. So, we’ve always been doing completely custom work, and we’ve always been aware of the aesthetic element. You have to have both of these together to make a fixed barrier system people can live with long term.”
An Agile Partner in Challenging Times
In addition to creating new health hazards and shifting the economy into neutral, the pandemic has also introduced new challenges in almost every industry. Manufacturing and construction—even for essential businesses like TSS, which remained up and running throughout the lockdown—are no exception. Supply chains were disrupted at every level, worker shortages, and unforeseen delays have complicated even the simplest renovations.
Nonetheless, owing to their long history in flexible fabrication and custom design, TSS has been able to continue to deliver both ballistic and virus-guard barrier systems without delays, and install them without disruption. For example, TSS recently completed a project for the municipal offices in Marion Township, MI.
“This is a good example of where our strength as installers came into play,” Jim notes. “That was a four to five-hour job. But it turned out there were a couple incorrectly cut panels. For a lot of contractors, that could be a disaster and put a project days off of schedule. But because we have a lot of depth in our team—the largest installation team in this industry, by far—getting those panels remade and to the site only added an hour or two to the total installation. We still finished on time. Think about any construction project: Things go wrong. We are never just gonna throw up our hands and say ‘Well, I guess this is just gonna go over budget or off schedule.’ We respond positively. We stay on top of it. We’re responsive.”