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Despite success stories illustrating the state economy’s resilience to pandemic-induced losses, COVID-19 has been undoubtedly bad for business in Idaho.

Business closures — permanent and temporary — have fueled layoffs, leaving Idaho’s unemployment rate, 6.1% as of September, at more than double the level it was the same time last year, according to Bureau of Labor stats. But some local companies have fared better than others, pivoting to produce pandemic-related goods to help them ride out a financially turbulent year. Local manufacturers that may never have heard of personal protective equipment in February tapped into a flourishing market as early as March, making “hygiene shields” or sneeze guards for concerned businesses and government agencies as sales of their traditional projects plummeted.

While some businesses looked to cut expenses after the statewide stay-at-home order shut down many companies’ operations to curb the novel coronavirus’ spread, advertising costs often fell under the knife. The effect rippled, hitting businesses such as Meridian-based Advanced Sign, which makes signs for local businesses.

“Things were really scary,” said Casey Space, the company’s vice president of marketing.

The company was already equipped, though, with machines that laser letters out of acrylic sheets for signs. Faced with falling revenue, the company put its idle machines to work and started slicing acrylic (another name for plexiglass) into sneeze guards.

After landing a big order from U.S. Bank, Advanced Sign went on to make clear plastic barriers for the Idaho State Historical Society, the Village at Meridian and eventually, the Idaho Legislature, after some legislators requested extra precautions be taken during the August special session. Thanks to new product sales, the producer has recovered from initial layoffs and now has higher staffing levels than it did before the pandemic.

“We did have to lay off a couple of employees right when the pandemic hit mid-March, but then hired them back a week later when we pivoted to sneeze guards,” Space said.

The sign maker wasn’t the only business to capitalize on skyrocketing demand for protective shields. Interstate Plastics’ Boise location changed course after years as “basically a supplier of mechanical plastic,” sales development manager David Whitehead said. The distributor adapted to cut and bend acrylic and polycarbonate — a more expensive plastic with more strength and stretch — into sneeze guards, table dividers and other partitions. That helped Interstate Plastics retain all of its staff and make up for across-the-board losses on its “bread and butter” products.

Idaho businesses weren’t alone in rushing to pump out more plexiglass products. Subsequently, a wave of orders crashed over suppliers internationally into the summer; high demand, coupled with scarce supply of raw material, made ordering plastic to make dividers a challenge, the Wall Street Journal reported in May and June.

“Everyone was making a run on (acrylic),” Space said.

That added to the challenge of manufacturing an entirely new product for local vendors such as Interstate Plastics.

“Everybody wanted them and it was a little difficult to get material at the start of COVID,” Whitehead said. ”The demand was so high so quick that everyone in the world who makes clear see-through plastic was making it.”

Neither company had to stop taking orders, but Space said it was “difficult” to fill some orders, and Interstate Plastics at times directed customers to thicker shields while thin plastic sheets were out of stock.

Whitehead remembers supply shortages lasting from the start of the pandemic until three or four months ago, just after the Journal reported on the scarcity problem.

Since then, though, both companies have noticed a bounceback in supply.

With plastic supplies replenished, the local manufacturers continue to make and sell sneeze guards to offset lower sales of their staple products. That’s been a big boost as their clients recover.

Advanced Sign saw advertisers surge back relatively quickly in April, Space said, so the company bought another machine to make signs so that one can be dedicated to fabricating sneeze guards.

Interstate Plastics’ clientele, mostly comprised of machine shops, is still rebounding, Whitehead said.

“Business is good because of COVID but … we would just like to see a return to normalcy so we can serve our core customers,” he said. “I have noticed a little bit of a slowdown in sneeze guard (production), but we’re starting to see our core business come alive again, especially among Idaho-based customers.”

Blake Jones covers Kuna and Meridian for the Idaho Press. You can reach him at bjones@idahopress.com and follow him on Twitter @jonesblakej.

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