At Irene’s Pub, Plexiglas is passé.
For more than a year, the long, narrow restaurant and live music venue in the Glebe had Plexiglas dividers between each and every table, meant to help hinder the spread of COVID-19. Since the summer of 2020, “each table was its own sort of island,” says owner Michael Estabrooks.
As well, Irene’s separated its bartender from patrons with a 10-foot-by-six-foot sheet, while a 15-foot-by-six-foot sheet was placed in front of the stage at Irene’s to block the spray of any virus droplets from singers or horn players.
But this fall, the Plexiglas came down in phases. In late October, when the Ontario government did away with capacity limitations and physical distancing in most settings where proof of vaccination was required, dividers between tables disappeared. Last month, the other big Plexiglas sheets came down. “We erred on the side of caution,” says Estabrooks, adding that he relied on chats with Ottawa bylaw and enforcement officers when he removed the sheeting.
Still, the hard plastic dividers remain in place in some other Ottawa restaurants, not to mention in grocery and other stores, banks, and even in Ottawa City Council’s chambers, where transparent shields were installed between seats around council tables. (That said, Ottawa Public Health advised city officials that remote attendance for council meetings remains the safest option, and the City Clerk recommended this week that virtual meetings continue until the end of 2021.)
The changing perspective on Plexiglas is one more example of the continuing uncertainties surrounding best practices during the pandemic.
Within days of the pandemic declaration in mid-March 2020, Plexiglas shielding was touted as a common-sense safety measure, installed sooner or later by retailers, restaurants, government buildings, schools and even the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
But last month, a top adviser with the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said such dividers may be ineffective, and even counterproductive, in some settings.
Dr. Peter Juni, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto and scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table, told reporters that “where you see (them) in schools or restaurants, the Plexiglas can impede ventilation and give people a wrong sense of security.”
His comment acknowledges research showing that COVID-19 spreads through aerosols, rather than droplets. Accordingly, more attention has been cast on ventilation and improving air flow, rather than on fixed barriers that can obstruct air circulation.
Ontario’s latest plan for reopening the province and managing COVID-19 makes no reference to physical barriers as a pandemic measure. However, the province’s guidelines for the use of masks in the workplace still recommend employers assess whether employees need medical-grade masks and eye protection while working “within two metres of an unmasked or improperly masked person without an adequate barrier (e.g., plexiglass, partition, wall).”
Juni and other medical experts said last month that physical barriers remain useful in direct, face-to-face customer-service environments. “There are Plexiglas barriers that are absolutely OK if you have a checkout counter at a coffee shop,” Juni said.
At the fine-dining restaurant Aiāna, which opened in August 2020 in the Sun Life Financial Centre, owner Devinder Chaudhary says it’s fortunate that the state-of-the-art HVAC system built to exhaust cooking smells from the open kitchen is also a strong counter against the spread of COVID-19.
Chaudhary never put up sheeting in Aiāna’s spacious dining room. “While these partitions work well in settings such as banks and ticket counters, they do little in a restaurant where guests walk across the dining room to use the facilities,” he says.
Aiāna also keeps a “generous distance” between its tables, Chaudhary adds. “Even though our seating capacity is 110 guests, we have decided to limit our seating to 80 guests during this pandemic,” he says.
Peter West, owner of Bowman’s Bar & Grill on Carling Avenue, has kept his plastic sheeting in place. He says he’s not sure if the barriers are still mandated, but he is erring on the side of caution and does know that removing them will damage his furniture when that time comes.
“I don’t know that it works,” says West. “I was trying to have people feel more comfortable … people see I made some effort.
“Now that everybody has to show proof of double vaccination, if you’re comfortable enough to come inside, the barriers probably aren’t necessary,” West says.
Estabrooks at Irene’s Pub now thinks the sheeting was “all a bit of smoke and mirrors and theatre, the image of safety.
“If someone was COVID-positive and spreading, I don’t think a piece of Plexiglas between two tables would be much help to you at all,” he says.
Estabrooks says he’s researching HVAC systems to improve air circulation, including systems that use ultraviolet light to kill germs. He figures that such a unit would cost more than $5,000, including installation.
Still, he’s not throwing out his Plexiglas. For one thing, he bought it at a premium, at a time when the price for the sheeting was tripling. And who knows? Maybe it could come back in fashion as a COVID-19 measure.
“If this pandemic has taught me anything, you can make all the plans you want, but they’re not worth the paper they’re written on,” Estabrooks says.