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Botetourt movie screen company switches focus to protective equipment

Botetourt movie screen company switches focus to protective equipment

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Harkness Screens

Harkness Screens employees work to produce protective barriers designed to help businesses as they reopen.

As much of Virginia prepares to enter the second phase of reopening, a local movie screen manufacturer is poised to help businesses take precautions.

When movie theaters began closing because of the coronavirus, officials at Harkness Screens knew that the company’s Botetourt County production facility would be affected.

“That really brought our core business of screens to a halt,” said Anthony Kelly, senior vice president for the Americas with Harkness Screens.

So the company, wanting to help and also to preserve jobs, decided to shift gears and began making protective barriers, including freestanding screens encased in sturdy frames and floating screens that hang from the ceiling and can be used at service counters.

Kelly said the company’s materials and processes were well-suited for making the products.

“We see the protective barriers as being a key product in the short term to hopefully help with reopening, including movie theaters, but then also get back to what we’ve done for 90 years as well,” he said.

Gary Larrowe, Botetourt County administrator, applauded the company for getting creative during a challenging time.

“They stood around and looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be here if we depend on that business we’ve traditionally been in,’ ” he said.

Harkness began its efforts in April, and Kelly said it took about a month to develop the products.

“Now we’ve developed the products, we’ve started to manufacture them and we’re beginning to take them out into the market,” Kelly said.

The barriers could be useful in a number of environments, Kelly said, including restaurants, offices, government buildings, factories and food processing plants.

Harkness makes both opaque and clear barriers. Kelly said the former can be used in places requiring privacy, such as hospitals, while the latter allow for safe social engagement.

When Larrowe was made aware of Harkness Screens’ effort, he reached out to officials who could help spread the word about the products, from the local economic development director and fire chief to a Health Department official leading the local response to the pandemic.

The networking helped the company secure at least a couple of orders. Larrowe said Botetourt County has placed an order, as has Rockbridge County after Larrowe mentioned it to his counterpart there.

Larrowe said Botetourt County is always eager to help members of its “corporate family.”

Prior to the coronavirus, Harkness Screens employed 140 people globally, with U.S.-based positions accounting for 20% of the company’s workforce, according to Kelly. The pandemic prompted 14 layoffs and 40 furloughs. He did not provide employment figures specific to Botetourt County.

“We’ve managed to keep most of the team in place, but sadly it’s been tough. It’s unfortunately impacted us like it has a lot of companies,” Kelly said. “But hopefully initiatives like this can help the company, not just get to the other side of this, but really get back to the number of jobs that we had and then grow and add new jobs.”

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or casey.fabris@roanoke.com.

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