David Salk does not have extreme confidence that COVID-19 vaccines will reopen the world. There are questions about the immunity they grant over the long term and, of course, the fact that as of November only half of Americans said they’d get vaccinated.
“People are talking about the vaccines like that’s going to be the new panacea that’s going to make life get back to normal,” said Salk, a licensed optician and owner of the store Focal Point Opticians in the Elmwood. “It’s utter rubbish. It’s not going to make things get back to normal.”
So Salk decided to dig in for the long haul. A couple of months ago, at costs that were all out of pocket, he installed a wall in his shop that separates staff from customers. Into this barrier went a clear window with a hinged opening that allows opticians to pass eyeglass frames out to customers. Then came an arsenal of decontamination tools – cleaning solutions and filters, pathogen-killing light, and an acid-spewing fog machine to mist the premises.
“I know a lot of people who have optical stores who are just having people come in with masks on with appointments. In the long run, they probably will be proven to be OK — that’s good enough,” he said. “But for me, it wasn’t. I’m 70 years old. I’m a cancer survivor. My wife is in her late 60s and has some chronic breathing issues. It just wasn’t worth the risk.”
Salk is one of the scores of Berkeley business operators who’ve had to adjust to the new pandemic reality. Throughout the city, you’ll find boarded-up stores that have been forced to close, but you’ll also encounter folks who’ve adjusted to serve their clientele in new ways. Yoga studios are teaching people how to downward-dog online. Manufacturers have shifted their traditional product lines over to face shields, plastic barriers and other personal protective equipment. One wellness company went from developing a CBD boba tea to a CBD hand sanitizer.
Below, the stories of three local businesses that have pivoted to not just handle, but embrace the pandemic.
The optical shop: A cleanroom, fogger and UV-C light
Salk closed Focal Point Opticians during the initial lockdown and afterwards sold eyeglass frames at a table outside the store on Ashby Avenue.
“I knew the rainy season and cold weather was coming, so this was at best a temporary fix,” he said. “I thought, if we could create a room that people walk into that can be kept completely disinfected, where there’s really good mitigation procedures, then people could comfortably come inside.”
He had a circle of friends and associates – highly regarded scientists working on pandemic projects in Europe, and one of America’s leading experts in COVID-19 air-filtration systems — to help guide his next steps.
“These people knew it was airborne back in December of last year, long before the CDC talked about it being passed through airborne transmission,” he said. “They educated me and that stimulated me to do my own homework.”
Salk drafted plans for a basic kind of a cleanroom. He didn’t want his staff physically interacting with people walking in from the street in search of some swanky Barton Perreiras. They might look fine, but could be asymptomatic carriers. So he built the wall, with customers on one side and opticians and glasses frames on the other. The customer describes what they’re looking for, the optician passes a plate of frames through the hinged opening, and after one or two pass-throughs with luck, a deal is struck.
There’s a lot of stuff happening in the background customers might not be aware of.
“I put a dehumidifier in the room because the virus doesn’t like dry air,” Salk explained. There’s a HEPA filter constantly straining for particulate matter in the size range of viruses. Salk also retrofitted his air-conditioning unit to include a UV-C light — the same kind of pathogen-killing radiation that BART is testing on its fleet to make train rides safer during the pandemic.
Staff wipe down surfaces that customers may have touched with a high-alcohol-concentration gel. Then there’s the fogger. “I bought a fogging machine which is the same machine that’s used by the major airlines and major hotel chains to fog down the rooms with hypochlorous acid after each visit,” he said. “So we have gallons of that here, and when somebody comes and leaves we spray the room down.”
Customers seem to be receptive to the seclusion zone. One Google reviewer said the “room is impeccably maintained to ensure customer safety. Well done!”
“I would say the vast majority have responded very favorably,” said Salk. “They feel they can relax. It’s one of the few places they can go out into the world and take their mask off indoors.”
Every once in a while, he’ll get someone who wants to manually browse the frames themselves and gets grumpy when they can’t. Salk isn’t particularly interested in placating this kind of customer, though.
“I’d like a car that has 8 million horsepower and tires that last 25 years,” he said. “We all want what we want, but we are in very unusual times.”
The COVID-19 kiosk: Taking an ‘urban birdwatcher’ design approach
Walk by the Berkeley Adult School on San Pablo Avenue and you’ll see what looks like a combo ticket booth and vending machine. This is a COVID-19-testing kiosk, which allows people to walk up and self-administer a test in less than a minute.
The kiosk was designed by Gehl, a Copenhagen-based urban-design firm that typically helps cities develop pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, safer bicycle infrastructure, and the like. The testing kiosk was a bit of a departure.
“We’ve never had a project like this before because I don’t think the world has ever been in this situation before,” said Blaine Merker, partner and managing director at Gehl’s San Francisco office (and a Berkeley resident).
Gehl got the kiosk gig after Curative — a disease-testing startup that itself pivoted in 2020 from working with sepsis to Covid — approached them with the hope of rapidly scaling testing sites across the country.
“We had these big drive-through test centers, but the problem is that can make it hard for people without cars to get to them,” said Merker. Even folks who have cars might not have the time to drive across town and sit in traffic. “That’s not equitable, especially when you consider the people we’re really trying to test are often essential workers or people without some of the means to get to those test sites.”
Some of the testing procedures at these early sites were also tricky to follow. “People had to do this complicated thing, which is like unscrew a vial, take a swab, unwrap things, do it just right, not drink the reagent,” Merker said.
He and his team decided to create something that could meet people in their communities and be easy enough an 8-year-old could probably do it. They boiled Curative’s 26 testing instructions down to just six, such as cough behind your mask, swab your mouth for the time it takes to recite the alphabet, and plop the swab into a vial. That vial is retracted into the kiosk, where staff collects it for testing with results provided in 24 to 48 hours.
Gehl’s designers were interested in how people used the kiosks, so like urban birdwatchers, they set up observation posts to conduct user research.
“For example, when we saw someone come up in a wheelchair and noticed they had trouble craning their neck to hear the speaker with the instructions, we actually worked with them and measured how close they needed to be so they could hear,” Merker said. “When we had families come up with kids, we noticed they’d like to test with their kids, so we adjusted our queuing process so families could walk up together.”
Berkeley piloted the first kiosk this summer in San Pablo Park, where it drew long lines, and now has the one at the adult school (schedule an appointment here). More kiosks have shipped out to L.A., Houston, Chicago, and elsewhere, at a brisk pace that shows no sign of slowing.
“It’s hard to keep track,” said Merker. “They are literally being built every day and going out to places all the time.”
The office phone booth maker: A pivot to sneeze guards
Zenbooth is a West Berkeley company built on a concept you’d expect to see mocked in Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley”: They make phone booth-like boxes that workers in open offices seal themselves in to get some peace and quiet.
At $3,695 for the basic model (they go up to $13,995) the company has done brisk business with big players like Dropbox and Uber. “We were growing pretty rapidly. In the first three months of the year, we basically had the best three months in the company’s history,” said Mischa Szymanski, marketing coordinator at Zenbooth.
Then, of course, COVID-19 happened. With most everybody working from home, the company found itself getting squeezed. “It was pretty much a two-week swing where we’re going from seemingly on top of the world to not being able to pay our employees and struggling to figure out how to save the business.”
Zenbooth, which uses Plexiglass to fabricate its booths’ skylights, had relationships with people who sell plastic. The company decided to leverage its supply chain to produce something better suited for these exhalation-phobic times: sneeze guards.
“During our conversations with medical facilities it became apparent that protective barriers between patients and staff was the greatest need. It was causing the most anxiety for hospital and medical staff who were interfacing with patients,” said Szymanski.
The company whipped up a catalog of acrylic barriers that it calls “GoodGuards” for medical centers, administrative areas, and retail stores — basically any setting where one person interacting with another could sneeze or cough and produce an infectious respiratory cannon. Its clients now include Alameda Health System, Dignity Health, biotech businesses in Emeryville, and several retail establishments in Berkeley, thanks to a partnership with the Telegraph Business Improvement District.
“I reached out to them because the [business-improvement district] has been looking for ways to support our businesses, especially with PPE and supplies or anything they need to continue operating during the pandemic,” said Alex Knox, executive director of the TBID. “GoodGuards was willing to partner with us to work on providing a subsidy that we’re paying for, for our businesses to purchase guards.”
Plastic guards don’t provide 100% protection as the virus is basically everywhere in closed spaces where people breathe. But at least it’s something.
“Part of it definitely is psychological about increasing peace of mind for staff and customers,” said Szymanski. “But there is the fact that as you’re talking with people you have the propensity to spit and for particles to travel from your mouth. We know the virus is basically passed around through the transfer of respiratory and saliva particles, so just having that shield does make it so it blocks a good part of those particulates.”
With remote work stretching into the interminable future, Zenbooth plans on further expanding its product line with stuff like height-adjustable desks for the home and, perhaps, more of its privacy booths for exhausted parents and people trapped inside with noisy roommates.
It’s actually already fulfilled a couple of those orders.
“We would get a few requests like that were more ironic or satirical through our live chats or phone calls our sales people were on,” Szymanski said. “People were making jokes about throwing their kids in the booth while they work from home. But those requests have become more and more serious as the pandemic has gone on.”