Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen more and more plastic shields being erected to create physical barriers between people and groups with the hope of preventing the spread of airborne particles. The idea makes intuitive sense, an acrylic shield allows people to see each other while theoretically creating a physical obstacle for airborne viruses. However, according to a recent article in The New York Times, these barriers may actually be doing more harm than good in many instances. While a conclusive ruling is still out while scientists continue to study all the complications that factor into COVID safety, the available evidence suggests we should put our time and effort elsewhere when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID0-19. 

The issue at hand is the mechanisms that scientists believe are the main cause of the spread of COVID-19, which is aerosols, or small droplets that people exhale when we speak or breathe. While plastic shields tend to do a great job of stopping larger particles, they aren’t very effective at stopping the spread of smaller particles like aerosols. On top of that, the plastic shields can actually disrupt the airflow in a room. As The New York Times points out, “a bank cashier behind a wall of glass or a clerk checking in patients may be at least partly protected by a barrier”, the specific airflow qualities of a given space may create “a downdraft into those little spaces that you’re now confined in and cause particles to concentrate in your space.” So in some circumstances, those barriers can actually cause more aerosols to accumulate by stopping the flow of fresher air. They can also redirect droplets to other areas, such that “a worker nearby or customers in line could still be exposed”. 

So if these plastic barriers may not be helping stop the spread of airborne germs, what can businesses and schools do to help prevent aerosol particles from accumulating in higher concentrations? According to experts, locations should work on improving ventilation and adding air filtration systems where possible. The idea is to circulate air as much as possible, and bring in fresh air from outside. It’s commonly thought now that outdoor transmissions of COVID-19 are much less likely than indoor transmissions, and much of that has to do with airflow. Businesses can also do well to protect themselves by encouraging employees and customers to get vaccinated, requiring people to wear masks when possible, and encouraging social distancing. The fact that the pandemic is still ongoing is a testament to just how difficult it is to mitigate this disease. 

Source: The New York Times