Pa. bank needed coronavirus shields. Good thing its CEO had a connection.

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Executives at Citizens Savings Bank in Clarks Summit, Pa., began floating the idea of Plexiglas shields to protect tellers from exposure to the coronavirus in early April.

So Joe McDonald, the $328 million-asset bank’s president and CEO, was ready to act right away when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a list of protective measures that public-facing businesses would have to take to keep workers safe.

Among the requirements imposed on April 15 was the installation of shields at registers and checkout areas, much like the sneeze guards that are a staple on restaurant buffet lines.

Citizens Savings’ branch lobbies had been closed for several weeks at that point, except by appointment. But McDonald wanted to be proactive about getting shields set up.

“We thought we better get serious in the event we do have some supply issues,” he said.

Like thousands of companies around the country, Citizens Savings plunged into a hyperactive market for protective gear. Demand has soared not only for face masks and disposable gloves, but also for the Plexiglas needed to make sturdy shields like the ones popping up at grocery stores and fast-food drive-throughs.

Such partitions are a throwback for a banking industry that has spent the past few decades removing barriers between tellers and customers.

But Jeff Marsico, an executive vice president at the bank consulting firm Kafafian Group, said the temporary Plexiglas shields are a good idea for banks, whether their branches still have traditional teller stations or have a more open, podlike design.

“A lot of them are hesitant to do something permanent,” Marsico said.

Though banks elsewhere might opt for just face masks, Marsico cautioned that there could be legal risks if a branch employee ends up contracting COVID-19.

As of April 29, more than 1,700 Pennsylvania residents had filed workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19 exposure on the job, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. The state does not break down the numbers by industry.

Some regional banks are starting to rethink their future branch designs more holistically.

Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati had been considering forgoing drive-throughs at the 100 or so branches it plans to open in the Southeast by 2022. Now it expects to keep drive-throughs, given their role in complying with social distancing guidelines. Synovus Financial in Columbus, Ga., said it might even add more drive-through-only branches.

McDonald said he knew where to turn when Citizens Savings set out to buy temporary shields for its seven branches the morning after Wolf’s announcement.

He called Drew Bubser, co-owner of Pena-Plas, a plastics manufacturer in nearby Jessup. Citizens Savings had never been a Pena-Plas customer before, but the men were high school classmates in the early 1970s.

Bubser offered to make something that would slide easily into the teller stations.

“Because of his work for the hospitals, he had an idea in mind,” McDonald said.

Pena-Plas, which makes mostly products used in plumbing and landscaping but also offers custom plastic fabrication, had been taking hospital orders since mid-March. They wanted screens for emergency rooms and exam rooms, Bubser said.

Calls from other types of companies — banks like Citizens Savings, as well as car dealers and casinos — started coming in around mid-April, after the state order, he said.

Demand has been straining the supply chain.

In normal times, Bubser’s lead time for ordering plastic is three to seven days. It now takes eight to 10 weeks to get delivery of the material he needs. And he has to buy occasionally from distributors rather than directly from factories, raising his prices by 20% to 25%, depending on the product.

Citizens Savings got its order in before the time lag got that long; its 27 Plexiglas shields were delivered on April 24. The shields cost about $95 each.

McDonald followed up a few days later with an order for 16 more shields for new-account desks. Those are likely to be wider and taller than the teller shields, he said.

Two Citizens Savings branches have reopened their lobbies, with limited hours, with the rest set to open their doors on Friday. Still, portions of northeastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley experienced a relatively high volume of COVID-19 cases, suggesting a longer timetable for resuming normal operations than for businesses in counties in the northwestern and north-central parts of the state.

McDonald expects the shields will stay up through the summer and possibly into the fall. They can be taken down in the event of all-clear signals from state and federal authorities, and they can be put back up if there is a second wave of COVID-19.

McDonald said his backup plan for shields would have involved calling managers at local supermarkets.

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