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LI companies race to meet demand for plastic safety partitions

Tim Shiebler, owner of Island Wide Plastics, in Sayville, focused primarily on custom fits for boats, until the coronavirus pandemic hit Long Island. Now, as businesses begin to reopen, Shiebler has shifted his priority to making plexiglass shields for local businesses.  Credit: Newsday / Alexa Coveney

Plastic companies on Long Island are scrambling to meet demand for protective barriers and warning customers not to expect a quick turnaround on enclosures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

The fabricators who heat and bend, cut and otherwise fashion sheets of plastic into products say orders from dental offices, airlines and retailers have helped offset lagging business from traditional clients seeking boat parts and lab equipment. While plastic manufacturers strive to meet a surge in demand, distributors and fabricators caution that delivering protective barriers will take longer and cost more.

“This stuff has become a commodity like gold," said Jeff Lingner, owner of Advanced Plastic Fabrications in Hauppauge. 

Demand for plastic partitions has helped keep A.R.V. Precision MFG Inc. afloat, according to Frederick Freyre, the owner and president of the East Farmingdale machine shop, which offers electrical assembly as well as metal and plastic fabrication services. 

Freyre said the "bottom fell out" when COVID-19 hit: work with Con Edison came to a halt, and the metal business suffered. 

In April, Freyre said A.R.V. Precision started filling plastic partition orders for professional offices and stores. The firm's plastic segment picked up momentum and has increased about 50%, according to Freyre.

Freyre said supply chain complications have not yet disrupted his business. But distributors have told him they were unsure of when they could bring him material, which Freyre said has made it difficult to give customers quotes.

"We're surviving," said Freyre, 77, a Copiague Harbor resident. "We're doing OK because plastic is saving the day."

Prices are rising 

The sheets of clear, rigid plastic that Advanced Plastic Fabrications gets from distributors move so quickly — and at such varying prices — that the fabrication company has adjusted how long its price proposals remain good for, Lingner said. His firm has changed its use of these so-called validity dates to keep up with shifts in the plastic market. 

Lingner, 55, of Northport, said he does not usually work on the fixtures the company traditionally produces, including boat parts and equipment for pharmaceutical, medical and lab spaces. But business is so brisk that he is helping with the barriers the firm is making for desks inside offices as well as for reception areas for a variety of industries, including car rental, airport and grocery businesses as well as medical and professional offices.

At Advanced Plastic Fabrications, sheets that hang from the ceiling can go for as little as $20 and free-standing barriers may cost $50 apiece, according to Lingner. He said partitions designed to sit atop desks and other custom, permanent solutions may cost as much as $500 or $600.

"I haven't looked at the numbers,” Lingner said, when asked if orders from new clients were substantial enough to make up for lost revenue from his traditional customers. “I've been too busy trying to dig myself out of this.”

Some fabricators have already started paying more for plastic sheets, and the cost will likely continue to rise, according to Joseph Princiotta, senior vice president of Moody's Investors Service and head of the research and analytic companies' corporate finance group. 

Greater competition for a key ingredient in plastic will drive up prices along the production line — from the companies producing plastic pellets, to the extrusion firms transforming them into sheets, to the distributors and fabricators churning out final products, according to Princiotta. 

"The ones that haven't seen a price increase yet … they're just lucky," said Princiotta, a Greenlawn resident. "They will see increases. I don’t see how it can be avoided."

Byproduct of oil refining  

With fewer people driving, oil refineries have curbed their fuel production and created less of the byproduct acetone, Princiotta said. But companies are seeking greater quantities of acetone because the chemical is used to make plastics and isopropanol for hand sanitizers, he said.

The capacity of extrusion companies, which turn out the big sheets, presents another bottleneck that will increase prices, according to Princiotta. He expects firms to invest in the equipment needed to ramp up production of sheets, but said the process may take months.  

The market for plastic sheets will remain tight through 2020 and likely early into 2021, he said.

"They’re going to be ordering, waiting and paying more," Princiotta said. 

Laird Plastics, a North American distributor of clear plastic, is moving five to 10 times the normal amount in the Long Island area, according to John Mundy, manager of the company’s Westbury location.

“We work on it every day, 24 hours a day,” Mundy said of their quest to meet demand. “There’s an enormous number of domestic and international sources, and we’ve leveraged all of them so that we can provide the market with as much material as possible.”

Still, Mundy said some items that his team typically delivers fairly immediately are now taking “four, five, eight weeks.”

“The lead times are significant,” said Mundy, of Lake Grove. “For example, if we’re going to put barriers in places in schools, we need to react very quickly to get that done. [But] it’s not going to be available tomorrow when they make a decision.”

Lakeville Hair Studio temporarily used clear shower curtains while waiting about three weeks to get barriers installed near the reception area and work stations that are not six feet apart, according to the salon’s owner, Francesca Lisio. 

“I wish I would have thought about it sooner, but I really didn’t think it was going to be an issue,” said Lisio, 49, of Lakeville Estates. “It was very hard to come by.”

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