If you’ve ventured out to go grocery shopping lately, you’ve probably noticed the plastic divider panels set up in the checkout lanes between customers and cashiers. They were recently added to limit direct contact between customers and employees to help minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The panels have been going up not just in grocery stores, but also in convenience stores and other locations, and in just a matter of weeks thanks to a fast turnaround by Bridgeworks Enterprise Center client company JH Plastics. The custom plastics fabrication company quickly created safety guards for stores including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Giant, 7-Eleven, Subway and Sunoco.

They also provided flat sheets ranging from 2 ft. x 3 ft., to as large as 4 ft. by 8 ft. for Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network to use on their medical campuses in reception areas. The panels and dividers are made out of acrylic or polycarbonate. Most were installed by mounting them to a surface such as a checkout lane counter or metal poles, or by suspending them from the ceiling.

“We created a custom intubation shield for LVHN for medical staff in their emergency rooms to use when intubating a patient with COVID-19 symptoms,” said JH Plastics Owner Jim Heacock. “Kyle Horton in the LVHN Office of Emergency Preparedness presented us with a concept from which we developed a prototype. Once they confirmed that the prototype worked, the hospital network placed an order for them.”

Most of JH Plastics’ orders came from existing clients, but a good amount of them came from new clients such as contractors for stores and property maintenance contractors.

“We produced more than 3,000 panels for our customers in just three weeks,” Heacock continued. “It started with 300 pieces and grew to 1,300 pieces ordered in just a few days’ time. We did as much as we could before the materials shortage began about two weeks in, which limited our supply and access to inventory. Demand for plastic materials like ours just skyrocketed overnight because of the pandemic. We work with great suppliers and generally have access to over 700 sheets of plastic, but in a matter of days everything was just gone,” he said.

“Since there is really only one other major plastics manufacturer of our type in the region, we were extremely busy with orders,” Heacock said. “I worked weekends and brought in extra help. I even purchased a few more routers which allow us to custom cut the safety guards to spec.”

Heacock founded JH Plastics more than eight years ago, but he has worked in the industry for over 20 years. He’s been a business incubation client company of Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in south Allentown, an initiative of Allentown Economic Development Corporation. His company offers plastic machining, fabrication and distribution for industrial, construction and residential applications, and specializes in custom orders. It can produce anything from a custom cutting board for a restaurant, to museum-quality display cases, and larger buildouts for laboratory chambers. It carries a variety of types of plastics including Plexiglas (acrylic), Lexan (polycarbonate), HDPE, PVC, polypropylene and Lumberlock (plastic lumber).

While requests for the safety guards have started to level off, he predicts another increase in orders in the coming weeks as the state begins to reopen, and stores look for ways to limit contact between staff and customers. Heacock has proactively followed up with current and former clients to remind them of his company’s services as they plan to reopen and need plastic dividers for their businesses.

And despite the hardships faced by so many during this unprecedented time, for Heacock there was an unexpected bright side to the pandemic.

“The entire experience made me feel like I was really helping through the pandemic,” said Heacock. “It might sound odd to say, but I actually enjoyed going to work every morning knowing I was doing something worthwhile. We just knew what had to be done and we stepped right into it. We sure didn’t see this coming, but we are so glad we got to contribute.”