Libraries Roll Back In-Person Services Due to COVID-19 Contact, Local Resurgence

No matter how conscientiously libraries stick to protocol, many have had to roll back reopening operations recently as employees fall ill or report positive COVID-19 tests or contact with others who test positive—or in some cases, as case counts in their areas rise or patrons refuse to comply with masking or social distancing regulations. 

Library shelves holding books with sign across central aisle sayingAs the country explores how to reopen schools and colleges, retail companies, cultural institutions, and restaurants while still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries have also begun reopening their buildings to the public. Taking guidance from state and local health departments, most have instituted some form of phased reopening, limiting building occupancy and quarantining materials as per REALM (Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums) guidelines for the safety of staff and patrons alike.

But no matter how conscientiously libraries stick to protocol, many have had to roll back reopening operations recently as employees fall ill or report positive COVID-19 tests or contact with others who test positive—or in some cases, as case counts in their areas rise or patrons refuse to comply with masking or social distancing regulations. From large, metropolitan systems to small, single-branch libraries, a report of exposure, illness, or a positive COVID-19 test among library staff requires decisive action—closing buildings for cleaning, curtailing services, or shutting their doors completely until further notice in order to contain any potential outbreaks—and each scenario requires thoughtful and appropriate messaging to the community.



Often the decision about whether to close buildings or dial back in-person services will be driven by municipal, county, or state protocols already in place.

Because of an uptick in local and state infection cases earlier in the summer, on July 6 the 23-branch Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), OH, postponed plans to further open buildings and suspended the limited services it had instituted, falling back on curbside services until seeing cases drop again in early August. “This ongoing situation has required weekly and almost daily evaluation and reevaluation of decisions,” noted Chief Administrative Officer Charlie Hansen.

In the face of a mid-July spike in infection rates, said Hansen, CML received valuable support from the Columbus Public Health department “in responding to real-life COVID issues and in the development of our health and safety guidelines.” Staff have been instructed to perform daily health self-checks, such as taking their temperature and monitoring for other symptoms, and “immediately report any exposure, symptoms, or confirmed cases of COVID-19 to Human Resources,” according to Hansen.

The library has issued health and safety guidelines for employees, and if one reports exposure or illness, HR works with managers and impacted employees to explore the need for quarantine or other isolation. CML then closes and cleans all the locations where that employee worked at any point in the preceding seven days. “We send communication to all employees with a general notification regarding the closure and that it was due to COVID, always trying to strike the balance between privacy regarding health matters and individuals' valid or practical need to know,” said Hansen.



The Lake Travis Community Library (LTCL), TX, created a COVID-19 health and safety plan for employees. Library director Morgan McMillian said this document is helpful, as it “takes the guesswork out of the situation by setting a standard of procedures to follow.” When a staff member reported a positive test, the library closed immediately and received the CDC-recommended decontamination cleaning prior to allowing any staff to return. “The employee who tested positive may not return to work until they obtain documentation from a medical professional stating that it is safe to do so,” said McMillian. At the time of publication LTCL had moved to contactless curbside services only.

In addition to the procedures established for staff, LTCL created a library closure plan. “This checklist included a pre-written email newsletter to alert patrons immediately,” explained McMillian; the closure plan also includes instructions for “locking the book drops [to control the influx of materials that would need to be quarantined], displaying closure signs, changing our voicemail messages and email signatures, posting to social media, updating our website, and more.” With this plan at the ready, administration was ready to take swift action when the positive test was reported.. “The safety of staff and our community is the highest priority,” said McMillian, “and [the library board of trustees] has been entirely supportive of the need to roll back service.”



In early July, the Grand Forks Public Library, ND, began its phased reopening plan. While the majority of city officials were in support of reopening, “a few urged caution and wanted us to wait until fall,” said Marketing Director Angie Laxdal. On July 19, an employee reported a positive COVID test and as a result “the library closed so that all staff could quarantine for 14 days.” Both the city of Grand Forks and the library’s patrons supported the decision. “Everyone was very appreciative of our quick action, and offered words of thanks via email and social media,” said Laxdal. After a thorough cleaning, curbside services resumed on August 10.

In an effort to keep at least some services intact even as they have had to re-close buildings, many libraries have returned to a curbside pickup–only model, making items from the stacks accessible through no- or low-contact interaction.

After reopening on June 19, The St. Louis County Library (SLCL), MO, closed all 20 of its branches again on July 29 after several staff members tested positive for COVID-19. At the time of publication, only curbside service was available, and book drops remained open. When a staff member reports a positive test, explained Communications Manager Jennifer McBride, the library’s Human Resources department alerts all employees and press releases, social media, and the library’s website are updated to communicate closures to the public. As the pandemic-related closures have resulted in lower circulation and fewer hours, SLCL announced on August 12 that it will lay off 122 part-time workers.

In small libraries with few employees, positive test results can render even curbside operations impossible. In Arkansas, the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library closed its Altheimer branch when its only two staff members reported that they were exposed to others who had tested positive for COVID-19, though they were not symptomatic themselves. At the direction of Library Director Bobbie Morgan, curbside services at the location “closed long enough for both employees to get tested and report back to administration,” Morgan told LJ. The closure lasted approximately five days and both staffers delivered negative test results.



Instances of exposure or positive tests don’t always result in an extended shutdown, however. On July 14, Julie McNeil, deputy director of public services at Jacksonville Public Library (JPL), FL, received a 6 a.m. phone call about a positive COVID-19 test result from a staff member who works at JPL’s main location. “We needed to have an abundance of caution,” she said, but noted that she also considered the fact that “the building is quite large, with multiple departments including our administration offices.”

The employee’s exposure to others within the building was limited, so the library building shut just for the day. Custodians conducted a deep cleaning, and staff in the same department took COVID-19 tests in accordance with city health guidelines. “We were very transparent about the closure,” said McNeil, “and our customers gave positive feedback about our decision, including [the decision to reopen] the next day.” No other staff members tested positive.

Since reopening on June 22, the Washington-Centerville Public Library, OH, has had “one isolated COVID-19 case,” according to Community Relations Manager Georgia Mergler. “We worked closely with Public Health of Dayton/Montgomery County and followed their counsel on how to navigate the situation.” While the affected employee quarantined at home and contact tracing began, the library where the employee worked did not close. The county felt the library’s prevention protocols were effective enough to avoid reclosure. “Hopefully we don’t have another positive case,” said Mergler, “but if we do, it will likely have its own unique set of variables and we’ll again look to [public health] to guide us.”

An employee at Indianapolis Public Library’s Central Library tested positive for COVID-19 on July 25, after having been sent home five days earlier when they disclosed that they had been in contact with a person who had tested positive. Because they did not have contact with any patrons, and in light of the critical services IPL has provided to its community since phased reopening began in mid-June, the library elected not to close. Instead, patrons who had visited the library on or around July 12–20 were asked to self-monitor for any symptoms.

“We are confident that our safety protocols and workflows have mitigated risk,” CEO Jackie Nytes stated in a press release on the library’s website. “Nonetheless, we want to be transparent with the public while we all work as a community to safely navigate this pandemic.” A second staff member chose to self-quarantine after internal contact tracing showed that they might have been in contact with the infected employee.

The Anne Arundel County Public Library (AACPL), MD, also remained open in July when two staff members over the course of two weeks reported positive COVID-19 tests. News reports note that while the county’s health department began contract tracing measures, the library locations with affected staff were not advised to close. As in the case of Dayton/Montgomery County, the library’s preventative safety measures were considered appropriate and a library spokesperson felt confident in the buildings’ safety—although two AACPL librarians who wished to remain anonymous raised concerns about the availability of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), according to the Capital Gazette.



Staff health protocols can be governed, to a certain extent, by local or library policy. Patrons, on the other hand, are far harder to monitor. If customers report positive tests or instances of exposure, library leadership can act accordingly. Often, however, the onus of keeping an eye on patron health in reopened libraries falls directly on employees—particularly in states that have seen later spikes in coronavirus cases after they reopened, such as Ohio and Florida.

In Florida, Jacksonville staff are trained to ask health questions and perform temperature checks. “Staff were nervous [about these new measures] in the beginning,” noted McNeil, “but now after some time it’s become habit.” The city also purchased a thermal camera for JPL’s main location in order to beta-test the use of this technology in screening customers for fever. “The addition of the thermal camera has been great,” said McNeil, and the cameras will soon be installed in the system’s other branches. Overall, McNeil remains vigilant, especially with the in-person K-12 school year now underway in Jacksonville.

Patron noncompliance is of great concern among library staff; many are resistant to wearing masks or social distancing, and some are confrontational. In July, after being asked to wear a mask in the building, a visitor to the Summersville Public Library, WV, deliberately removed a mask and walked through the library, coughing on books and computer equipment and into the air—in spite of a governor’s order that mask wearing is mandatory in buildings that do not allow for social distancing. The patron then became aggressive and verbally abusive to staff. After the incident, the library chose to roll back operations to curbside service only.

Anne Arundel County Public Library may not have closed in light of isolated staff testing positive, but continued resistance of patrons to safety measures while in library buildings ultimately prompted CEO Skip Auld to shift services to curbside, digital, and indoors only by appointment. According to the Capital Gazette, library staff reported 10 incidents where customers refused to wear masks or practice social distancing, and became verbally abusive when staff tried to enforce mask rules. Police were summoned to the library in five of those instances, and eight customers were banned from the library for a month or less.

AACPL staff members have logged hundreds of instances where they’ve needed to remind patrons to wear or pull up masks and stay socially distanced, according to a statement from the library. In a recent staff survey, more than half of the respondents said they felt safe at work “sometimes, rarely, or never.” In light of widespread employee concerns, Auld chose to scale back services as of August 10. “Since opening on July 6, our staff have experienced unacceptable behavior from a small number of customers who refuse to follow laws on mask usage and social distancing. Some library employees have even been cursed at and breathed on in a deliberate attempt to do them harm,” Auld wrote. “Our staff must be able to feel safe in order to successfully operate our libraries.”

Library reclosures continue to trend across the country, demonstrating the need for health and safety protocols for employees, workflows to establish quick communication with both staff and the public, and guidance from local government. With the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic, flexibility and a focus on public safety remain paramount.

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Masa'udu Iliyasu

Is a good development

Posted : Sep 10, 2020 04:19



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