I saw a video online of a grandmother hugging her grandchildren through a sheath of clear plastic. Sleeves for two sets of arms, coming from opposite directions, had been sutured into the plastic barrier. Grandmother and grandchild threaded the plastic opening, hugged, squeezed and laughed. The effect was beautiful, but different, reminding me of the pervasive surface anxiety we are experiencing.
As our surfaces continue to be vectors for the novel strain of COVID-19 and the fear of transmission persists, plastic has become a ubiquitous medium in social spaces. Any progress we’ve made as a country to reduce the usage of single-use plastic has been wiped out. Maine and New York have reversed bans on single-use plastic to reduce exposure, while New Hampshire has outright banned reusable bags.
“Consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300% in America since the coronavirus took hold,” Antonis Mavropoulos of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) told The Economist.
I spoke with restaurant owner Kim Shapiro about the process of adapting her restaurant to meet Ohio’s reopening guidelines, which would not have happened without relying on plastic.
Shapiro, 49, owner of Twisted Citrus did a cost analysis and figured that she couldn’t afford to open her North Canton, Ohio restaurant if her tables were six feet apart. The difference was between seating 34 people or seating 55. Originally, her restaurant had 80 seats, and she figured she couldn’t break even unless she sat 55.
Although restaurants in all fifty states are reopening, the limitations on layout and capacity have added additional costs for business owners.
Shapiro went to Target and purchased heavy-duty shower curtains and garment racks. Now, every time a table changes over, the curtains are replaced. They are brought to the back and sanitized. Shapiro had no choice but to purchase plastic material to divide her customers, even if she would have preferred not to.
The main change has been between the server and guests, she says. All the servers wear masks and where they previously might have lingered and chatted with the restaurant’s guests, they now limit interaction time.
“It’s become very transactional, where it used to be a little more intimate and inviting,” says Shapiro.
People prefer to sit outside, she says, where there is room to sit without plastic. One goes to a restaurant to be around people, to see and be seen, and yet we must now look and touch through plastic, in addition to keeping our distance.
“Everywhere you go there’s some sort of plexiglass, or plastic. Where maybe it was novel 6 or 8 weeks ago, it’s quickly become a new expectation,” she says.
The pervasive surface tension is likely to remain. California, Texas, and Florida have all begun the process of limiting restaurant capacity again after seeing a rise in cases.