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North Bay firms face the new challenge of creating safe workplaces in the coronavirus pandemic

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HVAC recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic

  • Increase ventilation
  • Consider a maximum number of occupants per office space
  • Change HVAC air filters prior to re-occupancy
  • Clean air ducts thought to be dormant for an extended period of time
  • Opt for the use of portable room air cleaners with HEPA filters

Source: American Institute of Architects

World of plastics

3 million tons of plastics are recycled at a rate of 8.4% of the material used in 2017.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest study, supported by American Chemistry Council statistics


For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in the North Bay, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Amy’s Kitchen supervisor Ronyde Rockholt was looking forward to celebrating her 50th birthday eating her way through Italy in August. Instead, the 20-year employee has found herself working the front lines of manufacturing food for others during a global coronavirus pandemic, alongside her 35 workers while maintaining a safe distance.

The assessment from the company's people and production supervisor working in the natural food producer’s Santa Rosa plant goes a long way given the insidious nature of the COVID-19 — especially in the manufacturing world in which hot spots in meat packing plants have raged out of control in the United States.

The alarm bells have sounded for North Bay executives and business owners who are tasking interior designers, HVAC contractors, IT installers, plastic barrier providers and architects with finding ways to safety bring back workers into office and manufacturing settings.

Despite the rules still being worked out across the state, businesses, like Amy’s, know the workplace is about to change. They include workstations set 6 feet apart, hand sanitizer becoming more prevalent, consistent hand washing among workers as well as routine temperature screening, the donning of masks making up the office wardrobe — and possibly even the use of safety glasses depending on whether the environment is at-risk.

With 2,600 employees scattered among three manufacturing facilities and a Petaluma headquarters, Amy’s has installed plastic barriers hung by cables from overhead to divide workers. On the one production line going at this time, workers wear masks, smocks, glasses and gloves facing one another at the conveyor belt. Employees starting their shifts go through thermal temperature screening and practice social distancing on the job and on breaks.

Even nonwork time has been given consideration. Staffers bring their own lunches and sit one person to a table of the 40 inside. Picnic tables are set up outside.

“That’s my second home. It’s a good place to work. We feel like family and take care of each other,” Rockholt said.

The supervisor has huddled with her employees to answer any questions or concerns they may have, adding she has never felt insecure about working during the coronavirus outbreak.

Two employees have tested positive at the Sonoma County plant through community contact and been off work.

“There’s anxiety about the unknown, anxiety about where other people have been. Even for people who go outside, we ask them to stay vigilant. When you think of it, there’s heightened anxiety just going to the grocery store,” Amy’s spokeswoman Jessica Adkins said. “But we’re cleaning consistently multiple times an hour, and our teams are getting creative in how to stay safe.”

Amy’s 200 office workers operating remotely will be asked to abide by social distancing protocols when they return. The strategic plan has not been finalized, but Adkins suspects masks within the office may be required — much like the manufacturing division, and hand sanitizer will be king.

“The whole team will come up with the plan, but we don’t have it all figured out yet,” she said.

Such is the case for many companies, due to welcome returning workforces to offices.

It’s only a matter of time

“What I’m seeing is all the public agencies are calling,” Facilities by Design owner Paula Stabler said of her 50 longtime clients she’s helped over 28 years as an interior designer.

HVAC recommendations during the coronavirus pandemic

  • Increase ventilation
  • Consider a maximum number of occupants per office space
  • Change HVAC air filters prior to re-occupancy
  • Clean air ducts thought to be dormant for an extended period of time
  • Opt for the use of portable room air cleaners with HEPA filters

Source: American Institute of Architects

World of plastics

3 million tons of plastics are recycled at a rate of 8.4% of the material used in 2017.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest study, supported by American Chemistry Council statistics


For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in the North Bay, across California, the United States and around the world here.

Stabler has heard requests to design office layouts with more barriers to accommodate proposed staggered shifts.

“The nice thing about workstations is you can add height to them,” she said. “It’s the opposite of the open floor plan.”

For starters, her Santa Rosa firm is reconfiguring interior layouts for the Sonoma County Library and Petaluma City Hall.

The city is implementing a plan that involves many signs, in addition to plexiglass barriers and “flex scheduling which will alternate staff from coming in so workstations observe social distancing,” according to Human Resources Director Charles Castillo.

“We are not done with our policy, as we are trying to incorporate all of the new changes and executive orders,” Castillo told the Business Journal.

In Santa Rosa, American AgCredit has assembled an entire enterprise operations team to evaluate whether the company’s employees working remotely are doing so safely and efficiently in their work environments at home.

Of the 200 staffers who usually work in the Santa Rosa office, 10 have stayed on at the office. Most are working from home.

“We are definitely promoting the home workplace as much as we can,” said Holly Scherette, a facilities specialist.

Her colleague, Todd Bellah, worked to help support the quest to have the workforce operating in their homes.

“The IT department was very busy when this kicked off. Many employees reached out and were able to get second monitors quickly,” Bellah said. Ergonomic chairs were also ordered and delivered within a few days.

Also working on the large task in Sonoma County, Stephanie Bonham of AAA Business Supplies & Interiors considers office space as “an interesting puzzle” that will soon be solved.

Her company phone line has started to pick up activity, but “it’s not crazy yet,” as business authorities figure out what they’re doing to make the workplace safe and efficient.

“It’s going to be challenging. There’s so much to consider. Most companies are trying to figure out a way to take out every other employee,” she said, referring to adequate spacing between workstations.

‘One word — plastics’

The 1967 blockbuster movie “The Graduate” couldn’t have been more ahead of its time when a family friend told Dustin Hoffman’s character “there’s a great future in plastics.”

Just ask the office designers and industrial manufacturers producing the necessary materials.

“In the last few years, offices have been all about the open collaborative workspace. Now post COVID, it’s the opposite,” said Rich Vitali, president of Coordinated Project Installations. Vitali’s crews have been on the job installing various barriers designed to wall off employees. If the cubicle walls don’t already accommodate clip-in extensions, see-through plastic barriers have sufficed.

With “sneeze guards” all the rage at banks and grocery stores, Blake Miremont’s Petaluma-based company, Architectural Plastics, has seen a surge in inquiries about products his 16,000-square-foot manufacturing plant is fabricating.

In the last month or so, business has grown by 30%. The most growth has been seen in developing face shields for mainly the manufacturing and medical sectors. The plant’s 13 employees have produced 30,000 in a week and a half at the start of the pandemic threat and now averages 50,000 weekly.

“Millions more are expected,” Miremont said.

Creating safe workspaces presents a whole new level of enterprise for a company he developed 35 years ago.

“Simple ‘sneeze guards’ can be sold with low-cost margin,” he said, listing a freestanding 2- by 3-foot panel that can start as low as $75.

Architectural Plastics has found a blossoming market in the hanging panels as Amy’s Kitchen has installed. It gets some of the material used and recycled from Germany, but most of the plastic used by Architectural Plastics is made in the United States.

Miremont has tested his company’s plastic barriers on his own production line.

“We’re working with companies all over the country,” Miremont told the Business Journal. Among the local businesses, Architectural Plastics has supplied barriers for Petaluma City Hall along with various restaurants and wineries. The latter industry has called on Miremont to develop plastic barriers with slots that accommodate wine glasses.

Thinking outside the box

No other type of business has more prevalence and clout in the North Bay than wineries, an industry worth $70 billion in the United States.

Many wineries have considered new ways of serving enthusiasts while maintaining customer and employee safety. Forget the longstanding image of customers descending shoulder-to-shoulder, belly-up to the wine tasting bar. That business model was going out of style before COVID-19 became such a threat and brought social distancing to our vernacular.

“There’s not so much of that now. Most in hospitality have moved into more of an experience. People enjoy the experience as much as the wine,” said Mayacamas Olds, the new general manager at Gloria Ferrer.

The Sonoma sparkling wine maker boasts some of the best views from its patio and its open-air building design and plans to utilize those features to separate patrons and make tasting room workers more comfortable.

With a plan in progress, Olds is considering hosting fewer people and using reservations to drive tasting room activity.

“Without an opening date, things are pretty fluid. We just have to be agile,” she said.

Chris Craiker of Craiker Associates Architects and Planners in Napa, said a lot of the wineries are reconsidering how they’re doing winery sales.

“Tasting rooms are changing and were moving to more of a living-room style anyway,” he said.

Craiker noted that the coronavirus outbreak has facilitated this winery trend, along with the tendency to coax “people to go outdoors as much as possible.”

The air we breathe

Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning contractors are just now experiencing a rise in activity from companies asking about air flow and its role in keeping people safe in a pandemic instigated by an airborne virus.

A few of these North Bay contractors expect business to ramp up as companies consider bringing their staffers to the workplace again.

The main choices for a company’s strategy are purging the building to introduce more fresh air, offering UV lighting to place near the evaporation coil to kill airborne diseases and ionization to purify the air in the building.

Zach Brander, vice president of Peterson Mechanical, said his Sonoma firm recommends businesses explore HVAC systems with HEPA criteria, meaning hospital-grade filtration that stands for “high efficiency particulate air.” His company performed an installation for Kaiser Permanente’s new testing lab.

If a company is unable or unwilling to install a new system, enhanced air filters may be suitable depending on how adaptable they are. The filters may load up the system and create and drain on energy.

The most probable modification is one that pushes outside air into the building, but companies may discover they’re using more energy to cool or heat that air, he explained.

Ultraviolet treatment represents another option, as the light holds properties scientists have found kills pathogens on surfaces.

“We haven’t seen this used too often,” Brandner said.

“In the last five to 10 years, the focus has been on energy efficiency. These ideas push back on those trends,” he said, referring to modifications that use more energy.

Other issues also involve who is paying for what.

“Typically capital costs like HVAC fall as the responsibility of the (property) owner,” said Greg Perry of Site Logiq in Sacramento.

With HVAC upgrades adding an expense ranging from $5,000 to $200,000, some property owners may fail to see the incentive to invest in their tenants’ air filtration system. Business executives that own their building may hesitate to sign on for that kind of expense when companies are losing thousands, if not millions, of dollars from this pandemic, he said.

“We thought we would be busier now, but I think a lot of businesses are worried more about their finances than occupying the building again,” Perry said.

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