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Editorial: Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down These Plastic Walls!

9 mins read

In the early days of the pandemic, there was not much information available about the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID. Out of this confusion and disorder, plastic barriers sprang up all around us overnight. The goal of these barriers was to physically protect people from droplets of saliva or mucus that are emitted by coughs and sneezes. Putting up plastic barriers made sense at the time, when not much was known about COVID and there was a distinct possibility that these droplets might carry harmful COVID particles.

Plastic barriers became a part of everyday life at Swarthmore, where they remain a fixture to this day. Barriers surround the front desks at McCabe, Cornell, and Underhill. They cordon off the Sci Cafe from the order pick-up area. They stand between Sharples card checkers and students talking with them. They are so ubiquitous that most people no longer think about or notice them. Like other minor pandemic inconveniences, we just ignore them and move along.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we know much more about the coronavirus and what measures are most effective in curbing its spread to keep our communities safe. Namely, there is now complete scientific consensus that COVID is spread not by droplets but by aerosol particles. Aerosol particles invisibly disperse throughout the air rather than being concentrated within visible liquid droplets. As such, plastic barriers are not effective at curbing aerosol spread because the surface does not stop the particles circulating in the air as droplets would be. According to a July 2021 study by a team of scientists advising the UK government, anti-COVID plastic barriers are “unlikely to provide any direct benefit” towards curbing the spread of the disease.

If plastic barriers were merely futile at preventing the transmission of COVID, we would have enough of a reason to discontinue their use. But they are not just ineffective: they actually make the environment less safe. Since COVID is spread via aerosols, proper airflow and ventilation is extremely important towards preventing the spread of the disease. Aerosols are most dangerous when they linger around a room. The more often the air in a room is flushed out and replaced with clean air, the less likely that one will inhale harmful COVID particles. This is why COVID transmission is so minimal outdoors, where there is constantly plenty of air moving around. Plastic barriers create an environment that is precisely the opposite of this ideal: they impede airflow, cut the room into sections, and prevent air from efficiently circulating around the room. The harmful aerosol particles remain in the air just as much but circulate at a slower rate than they would have without plastic barriers. A March 2021 study of airflow, ventilation, and HVAC systems in Massachusetts schools found “airflow impedance in the main office area attributed to plexiglass dividers with sidewalls.” 

The barriers are especially dangerous because they can create “dead zones” of minimal air circulation, where aerosols can linger for extended periods of time. The 2013 study titled “Measurement of ventilation and airborne infection risk in large naturally ventilated hospital wards” compared ventilation in undivided areas versus areas with barriers. It found that “potential infection risk is uniform in open wards but more heterogeneous in partitioned spaces.” The abstract details that “comparison with a partitioned ward highlighted the potential for protecting neighboring patients with physical partitions between beds, however, higher tracer concentrations are present in both the vicinity and downstream of the source.” Though the barriers did slightly slow the movement of particles between patients in beds separated by them, they also created high concentrations of harmful particles around and downstream of the barrier.

The barriers have been empirically proven to be harmful towards proper air circulation and are thus a direct impediment to one of the best tools in our COVID spread prevention arsenal. Their negative effects are minor, but they are by no means negligible. As such we, the Phoenix Editorial Board, compel those in charge of COVID prevention policies to work towards removing the plastic barriers that are installed in various locations on campus.

Because of their pervasiveness, we have gotten used to the minor inconvenience that these barriers pose. They needlessly disrupt human interaction by impeding conversation across the divide and by occluding the view of the other person’s face. Anyone who had been in Essie’s before this week or has tried to talk with a Sharples checker knows how hard it is to have a conversation — or even say what your grill order is — when there is a huge sheet of plastic between you and your interlocutor. To hear what the person is saying, one must crane their neck around the barrier. In Essie’s, students and staff had to bend down and meet each other’s faces at the small opening beneath the barrier in order to hear each other over the noise of the kitchen. The barriers are an inconvenience in the most literal sense. Everyone does their best to speak around the barriers; we should make things easier by just removing them entirely. 

The nature of the Sharples dining process already makes it difficult for students and staff to relate as human beings rather than as customers and servers. Students rush into Sharples in massive hordes, tap for a meal, stand in line, get food, and run to catch a table so that they can eat quickly and scurry off to their next engagements. The haste and chaos of this process is not conducive to genuine human interaction between students and staff. The plastic barriers only make this divide worse by concretizing it in tangible form, creating a physical barrier between students and staff that compounds the metaphorical one. Getting food from a staff member from behind a plastic barrier feels distant and dehumanizing to the staff. It makes dining establishments on campus feel like a cold 1950s automat when they should feel like a warm, tight-knit community dining hall. 

Science has proven that not only are plastic barriers ineffective towards preventing disease transmission, but also that they actually might make things worse. There is ample precedent for changing COVID policies that are no longer relevant, either because the nature of the pandemic has changed or because science has revealed that they are not actually helpful. For example, once scientific studies revealed that COVID is not transmitted via surface contact, harsh surface sanitizing efforts (which were ubiquitous at the start of the pandemic) were mostly curtailed. It is time for plastic barriers to go the way of constant sanitizing.

Essie’s, which arguably had the worst barrier situation, has now taken its down, and the rest should follow. Barriers are still up only because of inertia — because they have become such a fixture of everyday life at Swarthmore that we have accepted them as our reality. But we don’t need to keep on living with their inconvenience. 

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