Why You Shouldn’t Do Curbside During COVID-19 | Backtalk

The more people are coming into contact with one another, and the more people who are coming into contact with a surface (for example, a library book), the higher the risk becomes.

Katelyn Attanasio head shotViews in this piece are my own, and do not represent the views of my employer.

I recently received a message from the director of a small library system, who decided to close their branches after seeing my #CloseTheLibraries posts on social media. Three weeks after deciding to close, they found out that the literacy center near them was an outbreak site. Had they not closed, they likely would have had an outbreak as well. After tweeting about this, I received a dozen direct messages and replies from library staff asking about providing curbside service as a stopgap measure until they are able to fully reopen. At this point, I do not believe that libraries should be providing curbside service. The more people are coming into contact with one another, and the more people who are coming into contact with a surface (for example, a library book), the higher the risk becomes.

 

THE PROBLEM WITH PPE

Libraries have two options when offering curbside pickup. The first is providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to library staff, to protect them and the public. Given the nationwide shortage of PPE, libraries using PPE take that equipment away from health care and essential workers. The second option is not providing PPE for staff, which means putting staff and patrons both at risk of getting ill and even dying.

I’ve also had questions about staff using fabric masks while handling materials and working with patrons. Fabric masks may help prevent people who are already infected from spreading it to others, and everyone leaving the house should be wearing them. However, wearing masks will not prevent staff members from getting it from a patron not wearing a mask, or from the surface of a book or door handle.

I also caution against relying on staff to make their own PPE, or depending on in-house Maker spaces for mass production. As the Maker Team Lead for my system who runs our Maker space and is fielding requests across county departments, for health care workers, and for vulnerable populations who cannot social distance, this is an unrealistic expectation. I have five staff members making masks. Each is making 12–15 masks per week, which is a fairly high production rate. However, I had requests for over 1,000 masks just last week, not including requests from individual community members. Even if we had more people sewing—which we are working hard to do—supplies are hard to find. Most of our staff are using materials they already own, not only because many stores are closed, but because materials such as elastic, bias tape, and suitable fabric are in very high demand and often sold out.

 

RISKS V. REWARDS

I have seen arguments that curbside pickup for libraries is similar to that of restaurants. However, having to not only deliver but receive items makes doing curbside pickup for libraries much different. When folks are getting curbside meals, they aren't eating the food, then returning the container to the restaurant to be used by another person. Moreover, food workers are trained in and regulated on avoiding contamination, and their workplaces are set up to prevent it. None of those things are true of libraries. Finally, restaurants are not doing delivery and pickup because there is no risk, but because the risk is outweighed by the daily need to eat. That simply isn’t true of access to physical library books. Books and other media are incredibly important, but they are not a priority right now—keeping people alive, safe, and at home is.

I believe libraries are essential, especially in times of crisis. However, libraries provide many resources, and our reach has always gone beyond lending books. Of course there are many people negatively affected by shutting our doors. However, the idea that library staff should put themselves and their patrons at risk is misplaced and dangerous. Libraries can provide many services remotely: virtual and phone reference, ebooks and audiobooks, streaming movies, newspapers, databases, online programs, and more. We can use our research skills to find what areas have limited access to high speed internet, and use our networking skills to address it. Ultimately, offering curbside pickup isn't serving our most vulnerable patrons.

Part of libraries wanting to implement curbside is to demonstrate our value to our county boards, administrations, and managers, because budget cuts are here and more are coming. But we need to figure out new ways to demonstrate our value without putting peoples' lives at risk. If there's one thing that most libraries are good at, it's adapting to change. We're going to be in this for a while. Finding ways to serve the public while keeping everyone safe is going to be a challenge, but it is one I think libraries are especially well suited to address.

Katelyn Attanasio is a librarian and the Maker Team Lead with Arlington County Public Library (VA)

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