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An employee at Acryl Design in Winnipeg assembles plexiglass shields on May 8, 2020. The shields are in high demand as businesses look for ways to ensure social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

As offices and retailers gradually get permission to reopen across Canada, demand for protective plexiglass barriers is surging, forcing suppliers to hunt around the world to source more of the material.

Demand first jumped two months ago as essential retailers such as grocery stores moved to protect their workers and customers. Now that provinces are beginning staggered, gradual reopenings, fabricators are seeing a second wave.

The plastic barriers have become a symbol of safety. Alternately called acrylic glass or plexiglass – capitalized and shortened to Plexiglas if it’s the trademarked product – the plastic sheets are now a staple of supply runs.

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John Wardrope, owner of Acryl Design Ltd. in Winnipeg, has been augmenting his four-person shop with as many as eight other staffers in rented spaces nearby, cutting plexiglass for both big chains and small shops, custom-shaping them for each desktop or counter with little holes for sliding goods and PIN pads through.

Since his company registered sneezeguardcovid19.com a little more than a week ago, he says new orders have rolled in every 12 minutes.

Keeping up with the demand is one thing. Where Mr. Wardrope really prides himself is on sourcing the plexiglass. “I’m not afraid to buy four skids and put out $20,000,” he said. Depending on thickness – quarter-inch or eighth-inch – he says a 45-sheet or 90-sheet skid costs between $5,000 and $8,000. His suppliers get them from China, Mexico and sometimes the United States. In such a competitive moment, Mr. Wardrope works his suppliers to get the plastic before anyone else.

“Everybody waits for it to happen," he said. “I don’t wait for it to happen. I buy everything.”

Need for the clear sheets is mounting worldwide. Roehm GmbH, the German company named after the inventor who created plexiglass – and later trademarked Plexiglas – has seen demand rise sharply in recent weeks, it says, leading it to ramp up production.

Even distributors are stuck chasing down acrylic glass these days. Canus Plastics in Ottawa both distributes and fabricates. The company has spent the pandemic trying to ensure its hospital clients get enough supplies for their own shielding needs. Last week, Canus’s suppliers started running out. “Every manufacturer and distributor I deal with has nothing,” said owner Carolyn Perry.

Some have been out of material for six weeks. Most shields are made from thicker quarter-inch and three-sixteenth-inch plexiglass. To adapt, Canus’s fabrication team has been working to redesign its installation frames for thinner sheets. “That way, we’ll never run out of options for customers," Ms. Perry said.

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Canus tries to source as many materials as it can from Canada, but usually has to get acrylic glass from the United States. Already punished as an importer by Canada’s exchange rate, Ms. Perry says prices are up between 20 and 25 per cent because everyone is trying to buy plexiglass guards.

One of Canus’s customers, Vily Kozar in Ottawa, only just got into the plexiglass game. The shop usually focuses on cabinetry and millwork. When the virus hit, people stopped calling as much for millwork and the shop had to let people go – until director Joren Harris realized he could use his saws to cut plexiglass for barriers.

“The only thing we have to do differently is change the blades,” he said. Now the shop has designed a few templates and is able to build and install 50 plexiglass shields a week. “We’ve been able to maintain staffing, which was key to me,” he said.

Demand at Custom Glass & Acrylics in St. John’s is up at least fourfold since the pandemic began, says project manager Todd Fleming. The first big wave happened six weeks ago – the second was last week, as professional services organizations such as law firms in Newfoundland and Labrador prepared to reopen this week.

For the first five weeks, staff at Custom Glass & Acrylics were pulling extra hours. Now, Mr. Fleming said, “we’ve got everything down to a science.”

He says his team has been taking pride in the shapes they’ve made for clients to match their counters: square, curved, even S-shaped. After his team kitted out one office a few days ago, he says, the owner loved it – because now she has a sneeze guard for the regular flu season.

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“She said, ‘This is never coming down,’” Mr. Fleming said.

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