COVID-19: Plastic dividers are far inefficient or even counterproductive, says Ontario expert

In the beginning, some companies used shower curtains or a makeshift plastic tarpaulin to separate customers from employees.

Twenty months after the pandemic began, it is virtually impossible to walk into a restaurant, retail store, doctor’s office or other business without seeing protective plastic shields that separate people.

Now one off Ontario Top advisers, who guide the province’s pandemic response, say the plastic parts may not only be inefficient – they may be counterproductive to public safety.

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“Science is evolving,” said Dr. Peter Jüni, Scientific Director of Ontario’s COVID-10 Science Advisory Table and Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Toronto at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Jüni told Global News in an interview Thursday that the use of barriers in public spaces could hurt efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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“Where you see (them) in schools or restaurants, the plexiglass can obstruct ventilation and give people a false sense of security,” Jüni said.

The view is shared by other experts.

“The basic problem with a barrier is that it (in some cases) does not provide much protection … what a barrier can do is that it provides poor ventilation,” said Jeffrey Siegel, professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto.

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“This is the right piece of advice: I’m glad Dr. Jüni and others are saying it. I think it’s been well known for a while that barriers can be an issue,” Siegel said.

Neither Siegel nor Jüni oppose the use of barriers in direct customer service environments.

But they say the wider use of solid plastic barriers in public places can hamper ventilation designed to promote better airflow.

“There are plexiglass barriers that are perfectly okay: if you have a cash register at a coffee shop. Where it is a problem (s) where you see (it) in schools or restaurants: there the plexiglass can impede ventilation and give people a wrong sense of security, ”said Jüni.

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“Only use the plexiglass in situations where it really makes sense.”

Siegel says that while barriers can also be used to limit how many individuals occupy a given space at one time, too many barriers installed incorrectly can be problematic.

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“We’re starting to have some data, and the data suggests that … in some cases, barriers can be more harmful than useful,” Siegel said.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business told Global News that there should be more clarity on the barrier issue.

“Going back to the first wave, industry guidelines recommended plexiglass barriers. Even now, the rules on reopening prescribe different uses depending on the presence of physical barriers,” said Ryan Mallough, senior director of provincial affairs for CFIB.

“We understand if the mindset about this has changed; however, it needs to be clearly explained and business owners should be compensated for their investment, ”Mallough said in a statement.

But Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, said Thursday that the barriers still have value in the fight against COVID-19.

“Physical barriers such as plexiglass play a role in the hierarchy of controls that reduce the risk of transmission.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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