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Petaluma plastics company pivots to sneeze guards

In a memorable moment from the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” a well-meaning neighbor gives Dustin Hoffman’s character this brief snippet of career advice:

“Just one word: plastics.”

Updated for the age of the coronavirus, that advice might be: “Sneeze guards.”

“In 40 years, we’ve never had this much material in the building,” said Blake Miremont, CEO of Architectural Plastics Inc., walking the floor of his 16,000-square-foot factory in east Petaluma, motioning to rack upon rack stuffed with thousands of 4-foot by 8-foot transparent acrylic sheets.

Gambling early in the pandemic that demand for those see-through sheets would spike dramatically, Miremont locked in orders for thousands of them. As a result, API “is thriving,” said the 34-year-old, whose company has become a major supplier, in California and across the country, for sneeze guards and the materials they’re made of.

Rewarding as they find it to make the shields that minimize the risk of droplet virus infections between customers and store employees, Miremont and his wife, Virginia — the company’s chief operating officer — hasten to point out that API does more than make sneeze guards.

Founded four decades ago, API’s niche is high-end design and fabrication. It makes avant garde acrylic furniture, and display cases for wine cellars and museums such as the Asian Arts Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

That core business was upended in March, when Sonoma County shut down all but essential operations when the virus arrived. Those businesses that were allowed to stay open suddenly — and urgently — needed sneeze guards.

When Miremont moved to order additional supplies of quarter-inch thick acrylic sheets to make those protective barriers, he ran into a wall, himself.

He was told by the manufacturer that all their material was gone. “We can get you some, but it’ll be like two weeks,” said the representative of Rohm, a leading global producer of the transparent, acryclic glass.

When Miremont followed up the next day to confirm his order, he was told, “Now it will be a month.”

Calling around to every manufacturer he knew, Miremont locked in orders for thousands of sheets of the acrylic.

That initial rush for sneeze guards, from grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential businesses, trailed off as those orders were filled. The reopening of Sonoma County’s economy in May and June, short-lived though it was, ignited an even more frantic rush for sneeze guards. This time, Miremont was ready.

In a normal year, he said, his company might go through 500 sheets of quarter-inch acrylic. To meet the demands for highly sought after transparent partitions, Miremont now has 1,200 sheets in the warehouse, with another 7,000 scheduled to be delivered through the rest of the year.

In addition to restaurants and retail stores, the company is installing its acrylic barriers at health centers all over the North Bay. API is also working with numerous government agencies in Sonoma County to revamp office designs to use them.

The recent rise of shared, communal work spaces, which replaced cubicles and offices, has collided with COVID-19 — and boosted business for API.

Now there’s a need for barriers between workers in those open-air spaces. Miremont’s company is installing them at a San Francisco law firm that takes up the top three floors of a building in the Embarcadero. API is also working with a well-known Silicon Valley behemoth whose name Miremont can’t divulge, having signed a nondisclosure agreement.

In addition to custom-designing protective barriers and installing those sneeze guards, API sells the sheet material to make them.

“For most of the month of June,” Miremont said, “we were the only distributor in California, to my knowledge, that had (sheets of) quarter-inch acrylic. And that’s because we ordered it all in March.”

For its part, Rohm is now sold out of Plexiglas sheets in Europe and the U.S. until at least October, according to a recent story in Bloomberg Businessweek.

For its part, API is cruising along in Petaluma, insulated from the shortage, because Miremont took a big gamble four months ago.

What if he hadn’t made that educated guess?

“We wouldn’t be here,” he replied with a smile. Outside, on Ross Street, an 18-wheeler idled, waiting to unload its cargo of acrylic for the company.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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