Mark Awalt, president of JSI Store Fixtures, stands with one of the aproximately seven hygiene barrier designs the Milo company produces as a protective device for store employees and customers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Ernie Clark

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The lack of a vaccine to combat COVID-19 has left the battle against the pandemic to more direct human approaches — the most common of which is social distancing.

But one Piscataquis County company is helping to fight that battle in situations where the six-foot separation between people isn’t possible.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

JSI Store Fixtures in Milo has been among the nation’s leaders in producing transparent hygiene barriers that perhaps are best recognized as those plexiglass shields that have popped up at local grocery stores to separate the customers from the cashier.

And when company president Mark Awalt does the math, he can’t help but believe those barriers have helped flatten the coronavirus curve around the United States since they were installed during the last month.

“If you put up a hygiene shield in a Hannaford store you’re protecting an employee and a consumer, and if somebody walks up to be served every three minutes, you’re providing 20 protections per hour for two people so that’s 40,” he said. “If the store is open for 12½ hours, that’s 500 protections a day with just that one shield.”

JSI received its most recent large-scale order from The Dollar Tree chain of discount variety stores, and when those 2,200 barriers are delivered, the company will have shipped out more than 11,000 shields.

“If one shield can protect 500 people in a day and [with 11,000 total], you’re talking about more than 5 million [protections] a day and maybe upward of 30-plus million in a week,” Awalt said. “You have to believe hygiene shields are saving lives. You have to believe that.”

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Before COVID-19 spread throughout the United States, JSI’s production centered on high-end, wood merchandising displays and wrapping store refrigeration displays in wood cases.

But when the pandemic arrived, company officials were quick to shift resources to hygiene barriers.

“When we heard some noise that this was happening, we actually went out and bought over a quarter-million dollars of plexiglass sheets so we would be prepared,” Awalt said.

“We’ve always used plexiglass because it will bend and it will come down over the fixtures. We’ve always been a provider of plexiglass shields, of sneeze guards and things like that, but not of hygiene barriers. That’s a brand new term that’s come up in the last month.”

Hannaford was the first major retailer to contact JSI about producing significant quantities of the hygiene barriers for their stores.

Since then JSI, which has 150 employees at its 85,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Milo as well as other operations in Bangor, Payson, Utah, and Collingwood, Ontario, has supplied shields for such entities as the Hy-Vee grocery chain in the Midwest, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust Company, R.H. Foster and hometown retailers like Tradewinds Market and Reuben’s Country Store in Milo, Awalt said.

“We’re not just focused on the big folks,” he said. “We’re very good at mass producing, but in this particular case if people need hygiene shields, if someone wants a one-off, we’re going to give them what they want because it’s that important.”

The growth of the transparent hygiene barrier market — JSI currently makes approximately seven different designs — also has provided a boost to the company’s financial picture during suddenly trying economic times.

“We absolutely have seen a slowdown,” Awalt said. “COVID-19 has clearly slowed construction and pushed projects out into May and into June and into July, and just with the slow construction we probably would have had to cut back on hours.

“What the hygiene shields have done is not only kept everybody in this facility and the Utah facility employed, it’s actually allowed folks to even work overtime. It hasn’t completely made up for the slowdown in construction, but it’s made up for probably half of what we probably wouldn’t have been doing.”

While much of JSI’s hygiene barrier sales to date have involved grocery retailers because of the company’s more than 30 years of manufacturing fixtures for produce, bakery, wine, refrigeration, floral and specialty displays, Awalt expects the market for the newly emphasized shields to expand, with Bar Harbor Bank & Trust just one example.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of applications just in the state of Maine, and we have 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space in North America, so what we can do for a bank in Maine we can do for a bank in California, too,” he said.

“The question is when people start to get their arm around how do we reopen the economy, how do we allow consumers back into our facilities, and how do we do that in a way where there’s a level of protection that people feel comfortable with?,” Awalt said.

“It’s an important issue and I think it’s here to stay.”

Watch: How to make your own face covering

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...