THE SIGN INDUSTRY, and the world at large, are at an unprecedented stage. At press time, there are over 2 million cases of the highly contagious coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) around the globe, with nearly 700,000 in the US. COVID-19 has placed a massive strain on the American economy, with stay-at-home orders and other restrictions intended to curtail the virus’ spread sending the unemployment rate to its highest mark (13%) since the Great Depression, per The Washington Post. The federal government has responded, chiefly by passing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, creating $2.2 trillion in support for individuals and businesses. Despite the uncertainty brought on by the virus, signs are still being designed, fabricated and installed across the country, albeit under unique and trying circumstances.
The following is a collection of sudden new realities for sign, graphics and visual communications businesses, as well as stories of manufacturers fighting back with their production lines. We also asked industry experts, among other things, “Where does the industry go from here?”
Sign Companies Carry On
Right Way Signs (Chicago) regularly churned out 80 projects per month when its CEO, Alex Perry, was named one of Signs of the Times’ 2019 Makers of Tomorrow. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Right Way had 12 employees. Since, Perry has furloughed 80% of his staff, and he and two other Right Way employees are running the company as best they can on staggered shifts. According to Perry – who worked with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce before forming Right Way in 2014 – the Illinois Sign Association indicated that Right Way “fit within an essential category,” but Perry’s health and safety concerns for his staff prompted him to minimize exposure to his workforce. Perry and his team considered pivoting Right Way’s production to virus-related projects, but “decided that scaling back and waiting this out is the best way to go,” he said.
Sign companies have been deemed an essential business in Colorado, too, so RiNo Sign Works (Lakewood, CO) can operate in a “very limited capacity,” per RiNo partner Willis Wood. Front office employees are working from home, and staggered schedules were implemented for fabricators and installers, along with “robust” shop cleaning protocols. “So far, we have chosen to not lay anybody off and to keep our employees paid for as long as possible, while also maintaining their health insurance coverage,” Wood said. “Even though this will cost us thousands of dollars, we felt it was the right thing to do for our employees.”
RiverWorks Printing (Greenland, NH), with a client list including several hospitals, healthcare facilities and IT companies, is also considered an essential business by its state. “Other orders are still coming in for our construction and real estate customers,” said Print Manager Danis Chamberlin. “We are not doing the numbers we normally do this time of year, but it is just enough to keep us going.” Chamberlin noted that all employees who can work remotely are doing do, and that on-site employees are sanitizing workstations, materials and equipment, and are following social-distancing guidelines.Advertisement
Pre-COVID-19, Right Way had been expecting a recession within the next 12-24 months. “And while we have always weathered those storms well, nothing could have prepared us for this,” Perry said, “and I think the majority of businesses large and small agree. This is a ‘wake-up call’ to plan better for these ‘black swan’ situations that no one can see coming.”
Manufacturers Change Priorities
The first wave of reactions from sign industry manufacturers was mostly press releases and social media posts issued to announce that said company was A) authorized to stay open, or had to close, or B) if the company were open, that it would be in compliance with new health regulations (i.e., social distancing and sanitation) to certify that the employees and equipment, as well as the client’s order(s), would remain safe. Not long thereafter, many manufacturers began modifying their operations in varying degrees, shapes and forms to assist the world’s depleted healthcare system.
On March 22, 3M CEO Mike Roman announced that his company had sent 500,000 respirators to Seattle and New York City, two areas of early COVID-19 infiltration. Days later, the company said it would not increase prices for the respirators it was manufacturing. Per Bloomberg, by late March, 3M doubled its global production of N95 masks – a form of protective equipment that is used to shield the wearer from about 95% of airborne particles and liquid that can contaminate the face – to 100 million a month.
Another company, Provis Graphic, has converted its 3D-printing capacity– typically meant for illuminated signage – to produce face shields for frontline healthcare and law enforcement officials. With its present injection-molding process, Provis can generate 1,000 face shields per day. Provis initially focused distribution in the regions around Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the company’s production is based. (The US branch is located in Minneapolis.) Provis expected to export face shields to the US by mid-April, and has made its 3D-printed face shield production files free to anyone. (Contact [email protected] to request the files.)
It’s also possible to affect positive change on a smaller scale, and that’s what JDS Sign Supply employees have done, led by call center director Patti Moberly. They’ve sewn masks for hospital staff, as well as for JDS employees with friends and family who work front-line positions at nursing homes, clinics and other medical facilities. Summa has cut masks for first-line caregivers with the help of volunteer seamstresses, and the company has also used its flatbed cutters and laser cutters to cut surgical aprons.Advertisement
What Does the Future Hold?
International Sign Association President/CEO Lori Anderson stressed the importance of sign companies’ continuing to provide products and services to areas such as healthcare and food markets. “Mandates and guidelines regarding which businesses are deemed ‘essential’ are rapidly changing and often confusing as cities and states have issued stay-at-home orders,” Anderson said, “[but] our industry has been agile enough to offer products or adapt their equipment use to assist hospitals, restaurants and to meet other communication needs.”
Specialty Graphic Imaging Association President and CEO Ford Bowers noted that most states have recognized print as an essential business. “This has helped stave off forced shutdowns in many areas,” he said. “There are also numerous government programs that, although a work in progress, also aid to preserve staff and continue operations long enough for businesses to return to a normal level of activity.”
Both Anderson and Bowers encouraged businesses to use government programs for help, with each highlighting the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency Advance program. Implementation of these new “life-preserver” type of initiatives has reportedly been at a measured pace, though. So much money has been made available over a very brief period of time that banks and the SBA are struggling to keep pace, while other banks are hesitant to get involved at all. (Click here for additional details on the aforementioned government programs, more resources and regulations. Also, stay tuned for columnist Dale Salamacha s breakdown of the SBA and its processes.)
As for long-term damage to the industry, Bowers said that the economic ripple effects of COVID-19 may take another year or more to resolve, even if the spread of the virus is soon contained and curve flattened. “If you look at the equipment supply chain, for example, think of the number of tradeshows that have been cancelled or postponed,” Bowers said. “This means fewer leads for OEMs and less capital investment by printer companies. Less capital investment means less R&D by OEMs, slowing down the development of new products and capabilities.” Anderson observed that the industry and economy are in a constant state of flux, though she admitted that the present is “just faster, and, yes, scarier.” “While [most of us alive today have] never encountered a global pandemic quite like this one, we as a country and industry have seen tough times before,” Anderson said. “Our creativity and ingenuity are unsurpassed and definitely will be needed. I believe that signs help communities thrive, and there will be no better time than [now] to prove that to each and every community we serve.”
Click here for 5 COVID-19 Resources + Legislation to Know.
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