By Updated: July 15, 2020 1:10 PM CT | Published: July 15, 2020 4:00 AM CT (DAILY MEMPHIAN)

Sales of its traditional products crippled by COVID-19, a Bartlett company has pivoted to start manufacturing something people – especially students – may need during a pandemic: Face shields.

They are the clear-plastic, curved coverings that are especially prevalent among front-line medical workers who treat patients infected with COVID-19.

American Paper Optics for 30 years has been making inexpensive, specialty glasses. Some glasses allow people to safely view a solar eclipse. Some create fun patterns when wearers look at Christmas lights or fireworks. And many are made with colorful graphics or promotional logos for companies.

The pandemic has cut sales of those products by 80%, American Paper Optics president John Jerit said this week.

The company has imposed an across-the-board, 50% pay cut for its 30 employees, including the top officers. Work hours also have been halved since the end of May, when the Payroll Protection Program money ran dry.

But about mid-April, chief financial and operating office Paulo Aur got an idea from the pandemic news he’d been following.

“A lot of businesses are closed, a lot of our customers are closed and are not ordering glasses,” he said. “We needed to find something to do to re-purpose our manufacturing. We looked at some different options like reselling (cloth) masks. But we’re a manufacturer. We wanted something we could manufacture.

“And since we manufacture optics and we have the capabilities, it seemed like a good fit,” Aur said of face shields. “And there’s a demand for it. There’s a shortage.”

The product is fairly simple to make. The company created a new die to cut the shape of the clear plastic shield. It ordered rolls of elastic bands from California. It got foam padding for the forehead from Scott Fabrics on Broad Avenue. And the grommets, to attach the pieces, came from China.

American Paper Optics already has made its first batch of 1,000 face shields, and plans to start making 2,000 more when more material arrives in a few days.

“Making them is labor-intensive but not that hard,” Jerit said. “Selling them is another animal. Marketing is harder.”

The sales strategy led by chief marketing officer Jason Lewin will focus on the nation’s 80 million students, elementary through college.

Lewin reached out to 2,700 principals around the nation who are trying to plan ways to resume in-person classes safely during the pandemic. Many of those first 1,000 face shields were sold in small batches of 5 or 10 shields. School officials are testing them.

The face shields are simple to make and a lot of companies make them. But what can distinguish American Paper Optics is its experience and ability to apply all kinds of graphics onto the shield: From company names and logos to school names and mascots.

“That’s what we want to have to set us apart,” Lewin said.

American Paper Optics sells the shields for $3 each, less if ordered in big volumes.

A school could provide a face shield to each student, have the student hang it in her locker at the end of the school day, throw it away after a week and provide a new one the next week.

“So, it only costs about 50 cents a day,” Jerit said.

The company is not claiming that the face shields are just as protective as cloth face masks, which are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“It’s an added level of protection,” Lewin said of the company’s new product.

The CDC guidelines state that it’s unknown “if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles. CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings.

“Some people may choose to use a face shield when sustained close contact with other people is expected,” the CDC guidelines state. “If face shields are used without a mask, they should wrap around the sides of the wearer’s face and extend below the chin. Disposable face shields should only be worn for a single use. Reusable shields should be cleaned and disinfected after each use.”

Face shields do seem to receive at least a passive endorsement from other, credible sources: Frequent news images of medical workers wearing face shields as they treat COVID-19 patients.

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