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San Francisco

From festival stages to face shields, a SoMa fabricator re-tools for a new normal

As the Bay Area slowly begins to reopen, many business owners are facing the challenge of learning to live with COVID-19 for the long haul. For some, that's meant big shifts in how they operate. But for others, it's meant getting into a new business entirely.

Devon Meyers saw the new normal coming earlier than most. He runs an independent fabrication business, crafting video screens, projection mapping displays, and other custom items for events and festivals.

In late February, his clients started to cancel their events: first a trickle, then a flood. Meyers was suddenly left with an empty schedule and a SoMa workshop full of idle equipment. He asked himself, "How can we take that and turn it into something to help people out, and help us out as well?"

At the time, many fabrication shops like Meyers' were rushing to produce PPE for medical workers. But Meyers saw a different need that was going unaddressed: protective equipment for essential businesses.

With his equipment and resources, he knew he could easily fabricate the clear plastic shields that have now become ubiquitous at grocery stores, hardware stores and other retailers. Chain stores like Safeway and Walmart were quick to source their own shields, but he knew smaller businesses would be left to fend for themselves in unfamiliar terrain.

“These mom-and-pop businesses, they're just as crucial to our neighborhoods," Meyers said. 

Originally, Meyers and his friend Micah Byrnes only planned to distribute the shields, which they call "Viral Guards," to small businesses for free. Byrnes, the self-proclaimed “nightlife hero” behind Monarch, The Great Northern and Monarch Beverage Catering, set up a Gofundme campaign that raised $11,000 for the effort.

Working out of Byrnes' beverage distribution warehouse, the pair produced their first few batches of viral guards, handing them out for free to small businesses around the Bay Area. But it wasn't long before word got around.

Meyers started getting calls from companies willing to pay for large orders, customization, and even LED lighting effects on their viral guards. Local cannabis dispensary Barbary Coast put in a big custom order, while national chains like McDonald's and Baskin-Robbins sought customized viral guards for some Bay Area locations.

A custom viral guard at cannabis dispensary Barbary Coast in San Francisco | Photo: Courtesy of Devon Meyers

Nearly overnight, Meyers has found himself running Viral Guard Systems, a full-fledged small business with several employees. The company has sold its simple three-piece plastic guards up and down the West Coast, from a hotel in Carmel to a Subaru dealership in southern Oregon. It's still accepting donations to produce free viral guards for small businesses, too.

“I would say I'm busier than I was when I was doing event production,” Meyers said. “This is definitely becoming on par, if not a bigger source of income, than when I was doing the other stuff.”

It's a business model that's here to stay for the foreseeable future, as small businesses look for ways to make their customers — and employees — feel safe.

“A lot of customers are happy that we have those [guards] up,” said Paul Halteh of Bernal Heights' Pizza Express, who received two viral guards from Meyers for free. “Even though there's a barrier between us, they're actually happier.”

Out of gratitude for the free shields, Halteh has decided to pay it forward, distributing DIY pizza kits to neighborhood families stuck at home with kids.

Some of Meyers' customers are buying the viral guards in anticipation of what are likely to be strict safety protocols for higher-risk businesses. 

“It's part of the whole overhaul of dentistry,” said San Jose dentist Jon Smaha, who purchased two viral guards from Meyers to help keep his receptionists safe. “I cannot social distance — I have to break social distancing to do my job.”

Neither the viral guards, nor the air purifiers he's installed in his office, are part of the official guidance for dentists returning to practice. But Smaha said it’s paramount that his patients and employees feel safe.

“I don't want to lose people because they look around and say 'Where are the barriers?'" he said. “I don't want my staff to say, 'Why doesn't he put barriers up; does he not care about us?'”

For some business owners, even safety equipment won't be enough to return to the old normal. Pizza Express' Halteh said he’s still planning to keep his dining room closed after shelter-in-place lifts, out of safety concerns.

"As much as we could use the business, we're better off," he said.

A viral guard at Haight & Cole Liquor on Haight Street. | Photo: Matthew Gerring/Hoodline

Though excited about his new path, Meyers remains worried about others in his industry. Normally, they'd be ramping up production on festival work for the summer and early fall.

“A lot of artists don't really know what to do, how to pivot,” he said. "What happens when it's not until 2021 when events and festivals come back? What do you do? You may not survive."

He said he’s happy to have work that’s helping people in some way.

“We're in the business of entertainment — we like making people feel good,” Meyers said. “This is a different pivot, but it's the same feeling — we're giving back and helping people out."

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