Hawaii Libraries Face Patron Pushback While Upholding Vaccination Mandate

On September 9, Hawaii Gov. David Ige issued an executive order requiring all state facilities, including libraries, to require proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test for visitors 12 or older to enter. Since the mandate took effect on September 13, library employees throughout Hawaii have been contending with patron reactions ranging from gratitude to anger—including hurled library cards, vandalized cars, and a lot of frustration.

sign stating that proof of vaccination is required for entry as per Gov. Ige's orderOn September 9, Hawaii Gov. David Ige issued an executive order requiring all state facilities, including libraries, to require proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test for visitors 12 or older to enter. Since the mandate took effect on September 13, library employees throughout Hawaii have been contending with patron reactions ranging from gratitude to anger—including hurled library cards, vandalized cars, and a lot of frustration.

“I respect that people have different opinions,” Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich told LJ. “The challenge is, this is the reality, and we’re not going to change it because somebody feels that way. I wish it weren’t this way. But when you’ve had 1,000 cases a day in the past 16 weeks, that’s pretty scary.”

The Hawaii State Public Library System (HSPLS) is the only statewide public library system in the nation, with 51 libraries spread across six Islands. Ige’s Executive Order No. 21-07 calls for all visitors to state buildings—including contractors, subcontractors, vendors, interns, and volunteers—to provide verification of being fully vaccinated, or a negative COVID test taken within the past 72 hours, in the form of a card or QR code; they must also wear a mask and follow social distancing guidelines. All state and county employees were already required to attest to their vaccination status or agree to regular testing as per Ige’s Emergency Proclamation of August 5. At press time 67.8 percent of the state’s population was fully vaccinated.

HSPLS has been providing public services since May 2020, and buildings opened with limited capacity that November. Between May 2020 and this May, noted Aldrich, there was not a single case of COVID among library staff, but that has changed with the recent surge in cases, and a number of libraries have closed temporarily during this summer’s COVID spike.

“People tend to forget that the resources we have are the resources we have,” noted Public Libraries Branch Director Stacie Kaneshige. “It’s not like we can have people go to another state if our hospitals fill up. If we lose capacity we’re going to be in dire straits, because the nearest place is six hours away by plane.”

 

A RANGE OF RESPONSES

When the mandate was announced, Aldrich and her executive team went over their plans to implement the new regulations, then met with branch managers for feedback and to hear concerns. The rules were clear-cut, and staff have been able to provide most of the same services outdoors as inside—the average daytime summer temperature of 85° F only dips to an average of 78° in the winter months—but reactions from users have varied widely.

Most have been glad to see the executive order in place, saying that it makes them feel safer, or have begun visiting the library again after staying away because of health concerns. Aldrich, who put in a shift at her local library on the first weekend of the new regulations, described a typical interaction: “A mother came up with two kids and she forgot everything, she didn’t have [her vaccination card] on her. And we said, ‘We’re so sorry, but your kids can go in.’” Aldrich offered to take the children in herself so they could pick out some books, help them check their selections out, and check out the holds the woman had come to pick up. “So the kids went in, and they had a few minutes in the library, and they got to pick what they wanted to read.”

Patrons can sit outside with a library Chromebook and use the Wi-Fi, Aldrich added, and employees are available to answer any reference or tech help questions. “Staff are really trying to provide that at-the-door service if you can’t come in,” she told LJ. “So it’s not like we’re saying no, you have no access to anything and you can’t get books. We’re not denying you that. We just can’t allow you in the building.”

Other users have responded with anger and frustration, claiming that the library is violating their rights, Aldrich said, or that this is a way for the library to shame people who don’t choose to be vaccinated. The loss of civility from longtime library users—“story time moms and senior patrons”—has been jarring, said Kaneshige. “We were shocked by the almost personal nature of how upset they were to the staff. It’s hard because those are the people that they built relationships with over years.”

Adding to patrons’ confusion, rules for non-state organizations and venues differ among individual Hawaii counties. Even longtime library users don’t always realize that HSPLS is a state agency, and expect to encounter the same guidelines they follow in other public spaces. In addition, Hawaii has two separate digital proofs of vaccination, and the QR code provided by the Safe Travels app is not the same as the state’s digital SMART Health Card required, as per the executive order, by HSPLS.

“People were taking screenshots of their travel QR code, and we were scanning it and it wasn’t working, and they were getting upset,” explained Kaneshige. “We had to rejigger our narrative at the door,” she said, slowing down the entry process even further.

 

STRAIN ON STAFF

Employees have been bearing the brunt of the community’s dissatisfaction, noted Aldrich, and between major changes in service models during the pandemic—a large uptick in use of digital materials and the holds system—and having to explain new services, rules, and closings to the public, they were already operating at capacity.

“How do we make sure that staff are able to listen to people and then let it go, and not take on the comments and things people are saying?" she asked. “Because it’s not them. People aren’t angry at us. They're angry because they can’t do something, and they're angry about what’s happening in the world, and we just happen to be there to listen.”

Managers have been asked to look out for stress among employees. Public service hours have been reduced so that staff can recharge away from forward-facing work, and they are encouraged to use the counseling services offered by the state. For libraries without security guards, management recommends posting two staff members at the door to back each other up. The conflict is painful—and personal—for everyone, noted Kaneshige.

Most HSPLS workers appreciate the mandate, and the knowledge that everyone who walks into the library is vaccinated or has tested negative for COVID. A few employees disagree and have chosen to take weekly tests rather than get vaccinated themselves. The biggest challenge to staff, said Aldrich, is the new level of uncertainty about how patrons will react to the new requirements on any given day. Employees “have been called Communists, fascists, and Nazis,” she said, “and had library cards thrown at them.”

Online feedback has heated up as well, but no confrontations have escalated to violence, although the police have been called on several occasions when a visitor refused to leave. One branch manager in a rural town had his car keyed in the parking lot, and the wires were cut in a security guard’s car; no arrests have been made, but as this is the first incident of vandalism at that location, Aldrich and Kaneshige believe that it’s related to patrons’ unhappiness at being denied entry. The vaccine mandate is “such a hot topic, and it’s so political, and people are so tired of the pandemic—which we all are—that for some people it’s like a breaking point,” said Aldrich.

 

POSITIVE PUBLICITY

In addition to safeguarding employee and patron health, in some cases the mandate has encouraged library users to get their vaccinations.

“I was one of those who said I wasn’t going to get vaccinated,” Kauai resident Louie Ho’omanawanui told The Garden Island. “But the library changed my mind. I like going to the library, and when I went there, I found out I needed to be vaccinated. I’m OK with that.” After receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at a local mobile clinic, Ho’omanawanui was able to return to the library in a couple of weeks.

With positive publicity from Friends groups and word of mouth—and some time to get used to the new rules—angry incidents at the library have been decreasing. “We want to keep serving people, absolutely,” said Aldrich. “At the same time, we also want to support public health. So in our minds, we’re always trying to figure out where we find that middle ground, to meet those public health and safety requirements yet still provide service.”

While upholding the governor’s mandate hasn’t been simple, she added, the fact that Hawaii’s libraries are all state agencies means that they don’t have to defend their choice. Public libraries in other states looking to institute a proof of vaccination requirement, with no single administering entity to back them up, will have a challenging time making their case to community members who are opposed to it, noted Aldrich. “You’re going to get completely bombarded with I’m a taxpayer, and you can’t close the library to me,’” she said, and advised libraries considering it to talk with their legal counsel beforehand.

Kaneshige also suggested reaching out to Friends groups and local news outlets, which has helped HSPLS keep its public informed and mitigate frustration. But for many, coming to terms with the new rules will just take time. “One of my librarians told me that she was experiencing people almost going through the stages of grief,” said Kaneshige. “First there was anger, and then there was sadness. We’re hoping acceptance comes soon.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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