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Not So Fast: Plexiglass Cubes Can’t Solve Coronavirus Conundrum

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plastic partitions between desks are “hot right now.” From Cushman & Wakefield to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recommendations are pouring forth for how the owners and managers of buildings — offices, casinos, even schools — should rework their floor plans so as to stop the spread of the coronavirus with see-through barriers. Plexiglass companies are overwhelmed with orders accordingly.

Not So Fast: Plexiglass Cubes Can’t Solve Coronavirus Conundrum
Plexiglass officewares maker Xybix has had to "tweak and pivot our business to account for such high demand" of office barriers, according to a company representative.

But how safe can it keep workers? In a recent discussion about the office of the future, a Cushman & Wakefield spokesperson told Wired, "You’re going to see a lot of plexiglass. ... Having that divider will make people feel safer." 

But feeling safer and being safer are two different things entirely.

"It’s theater, just like we saw after 9/11," said Ron Weiner, CEO of office furniture purveyor iMovr in Seattle. He believes plexiglass shields only accomplish the first of those two things, feeling safe, and recommendations around these solutions are just "what real estate and furniture companies are trying to get people to think because their stock is now trading at 40% of what it used to ... The acrylic shield is the epitome of theater."

In the 1960s, furniture purveyors and office space visionaries invested in the mid-century "office of the future." Today we know that office as the "cubicle farm."

"Remember those photos of the 1930s of the seas of desks?" Weiner said. "They were trying to get away from that, and ended up with a sea of cubicles instead. Then 30 years ago, everybody moved away from that to the 'open office,' and that saved money — and everyone hated it.”

Indeed, open offices can be really quite bad for employees.

"[A company with an open office plan] looks like a company where things are moving, and things are happening," Weiner added. "Yet we’ve known for a decade that those people catch the flu a lot more than people in offices or even high-walled cubicle offices. It’s harder to concentrate. People are less happy."

In light of the pandemic, in which that existing risk of catching a virus is multiplied, companies are contemplating a cubicle comeback, and operating under the impression that walls between desks will be the difference between a successful re-entry and a perpetuation of viral spread.

But New York University Professor of Microbiology and Pathology Phil Tierno said the coronavirus may hang in the air for prolonged periods of time.

"Knowing how we get sick, we generally get sick person to person," Tierno said. "COVID is communicated through the air. You can cough, talk, sneeze ... And it's recently been found by researchers at MIT, at Kyoto University and [by] several other major researchers that the virus can be spread in microdroplets through breathing," making even being in close proximity to an infected person a risk.

Not So Fast: Plexiglass Cubes Can’t Solve Coronavirus Conundrum

According to Tierno, during research into the aerodynamics of the virus, researchers determined that not only will the coronavirus transmit via large aerosol droplets from a cough or a sneeze (which then drop to the ground), it is now believed that it can also be transmitted in microscopic droplets that instead hang in the air in a cloud for hours, and pose a prolonged risk to others, especially in the absence of face masks or shields.

So however clean a building manager or company owner can keep the buttons in their elevator or the inside of a single worker's cubicle-like space, the air they walk through on their way to and from their desk is a separate issue.

One of Tierno's solutions shouldn't come as a surprise.

"A face mask is extraordinarily important," he said. "A face mask on you protects me, and a face mask on me protects you, and it modifies the forceful effect of sneezing, coughing, talking."

And Weiner said the importance of face masks is closely tied to his gripe with plastic desk barriers. "Does [a plexiglass desk barrier] increase the risk of complacency, because you’re more likely to take off your mask?" he asked.

"And if you assume every employee is wearing a mask, sanitizing and following all the rules, that sneeze guard is still a joke at the end of the day," he said. "Yes, you can sanitize your desk and phone and all of that. But if you look at those spray patterns, if somebody sneezes it’s going to go way over that and land on the other person."

Little is known for certain when it comes to coronavirus risk, and some companies — Google, FacebookTwitter and Shopify among them — are avoiding the guesswork altogether by opting to keep at least some part of their workforce at home for a prolonged period of time, or indefinitely.  

For those who do return to a shared office setting, experts agree that, in combination with other sterilization approaches, a bare minimum of 6 feet separation between desks is critical, whether or not plexiglass barriers exist.

"If the vision was 'let’s get real [about bringing workers back to offices],' we need to do something more effective than acrylic separators," Weiner said.

He added that it is possible that may lead to new furniture sales — for his company and others — but ultimately, it means that employers will likely be putting fewer people in an office at one time for the foreseeable future.