Wiesbaden: Touted as a simple but effective shield against coronavirus infections, transparent screens have sprung up at supermarket tills and pharmacies across Germany.
The Plexiglas Riesner processing plant in Wiesbaden is abuzz with activity as owner Claus Mueller and his workers race to get out the next batch of orders, cutting and bending acrylic sheets to size while the phone rings off the hook.
It’s the busiest time in the small company’s 114-year history, with requests coming in faster than the supply chain can handle.
“We have endless work but the reason is very sad, so we can’t be euphoric about it,” Mueller tells AFP.
Demand for “sneeze guards” has surged as companies scramble to protect employees from a deadly virus that is transmitted through droplets from an infected person’s mouth or nose, putting at risk those whose jobs don’t allow them to keep the recommended two-metre (six-foot) distance.
“It’s the sensible thing to do if close contact can’t be avoided,” says Mueller.
In the space of mere weeks, German shoppers have become used to the sight of plexiglass barriers separating them from cashiers in grocery stores, among the few retailers that remain open.
Mueller says his sales have doubled in March compared with pre-virus times, boosted by business from hospitals, pharmacies, hotels, banks, and doctors’ offices.
Stock running out
But he is fast running out of stock, and estimates he only has enough to keep going for another week or two.
“It seems the whole market in Germany is coming to a standstill,” Mueller says.
While plexiglass is often used as shorthand for any acrylic sheets, Mueller points out that the high-quality Plexiglas (spelled with a single “s”) that he mostly works with is a registered trademark.
And his Plexiglas wholesaler has warned that deliveries of raw materials are grinding to a halt.
“We’re not expecting new deliveries until early May,” Mueller says.
According to research firm 360 Market Updates, the global market for acrylic sheets was worth $5.3 billion (4.8 billion euros) in 2019 and is forecast to grow to $7.1 billion by 2024.
The Plexiglas Riesner company started out as a family glass-cutting business before founder Karl Riesner’s son switched to cheaper and easier to manipulate plexiglass in 1957.
Mueller took over the firm in 2004 after stumbling across it on a government website that connects entrepreneurs with small and medium-size “Mittelstand” companies, considered the backbone of Europe’s top economy, in need of successors.
“I ran the numbers and knew I could make it work,” he recalls.
Looking past the coronavirus crisis, Mueller expects demand for plexiglass from food retailers will drop off, and predicts that many will eventually remove the screens.
But he can see plexiglass becoming a fixture in pharmacies and doctors’ reception areas.
One of his customers, pharmacist Iris Erdelmeier, says she feels more comfortable working behind the plastic safeguard while the pandemic rages, with plexiglass dividers installed at all three of her pharmacy’s tills.
“We feel much safer with the protective screens. They also protect our patients in case we ourselves were to be infected without showing symptoms,” she says....