But librarians say the reopening has been poorly handled, exposing both staff members and the public to potential coronavirus risks. They also say library managers have kept staff in the dark about colleagues who come down with the virus and have struggled with cleaning protocols and mask requirements.
“We want people to use our services, but this is one of those things where we just don’t think it’s safe yet,” said one library staff member, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared losing their jobs. “We think this has been rushed. We’re here. We’re still showing up to work. We want to help people. But it’s not safe.”
The head of the library system, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, said in an interview that he understands workers’ concerns, but he believes residents should feel they can check out books without fear.
“We are being very cautious,” he said. “Our staff, in most cases, are front-line workers now, and they’re delivering a crucial service for residents who want libraries and need libraries. But I get it. This is a situation that was unfathomable to us just a few months ago, so I think some anxiety is perfectly natural. . . . That’s why, I think, we’re taking it as slow as we have been.”
Many library systems regionally and nationwide have reopened slower than D.C. Montgomery County is still only checking out books curbside, not allowing patrons in the building as D.C. libraries are. Prince George’s County began offering only curbside checkout this week. Richmond’s public libraries announced Thursday they would end the in-person services that they had resumed, returning to curbside pickup only until at least Sept. 8.
The frustration among D.C. librarians, shared on employee email lists and in conversations inside the 14 open branches, prompted a planned demonstration outside the Northeast branch on Wednesday evening to warn neighborhood residents about what they say are the risks of visiting the library. It was canceled due to severe thunderstorms.
Northeast is one of at least two branches where staff members have come down with the coronavirus, employees say. The branch closed for cleaning for a day last week, D.C. Public Library spokesman George Williams said. The system did not publicly give a reason for the closure. Williams said it would be a violation of employees’ privacy to discuss whether anyone working at the library had the virus.
The D.C. Health Department requires that workplaces take an expansive approach to quarantine: When one worker gets sick, anyone who has worked near them is supposed to stay inside their home for the next 14 days. This was the stringent policy that almost made the Washington Nationals relocate outside the city, worried they would have to quarantine all their players if one of them fell ill. (The city eventually reached an agreement with the team, though it warned darkly in a letter that it thought the Nationals were putting workers’ health at risk.)
The library explained its plan to follow that guidance in a memo to employees in June, which said that if one worker got sick, library managers would send a letter directing anyone to quarantine who had worked within six feet of that person.
But at the Mount Pleasant branch, a librarian said she woke up with a sore throat and a fever in early July, and told her branch manager that she would take off work that day and get tested. Four days later, she said, her test results came back negative, but her illness had worsened significantly. She had a telemedicine visit with a doctor, who provided her with a letter that said that based on her symptoms, she should be presumed to have the virus.
She said she took it upon herself to inform the co-workers she had worked near that they would probably need to quarantine. But she was surprised, three days later, to hear from one of them that their managers had said nothing about her illness.
“I thought you had covid. What’s going on? Admin says no one’s tested positive at Mount Pleasant,” the colleague texted the sick librarian.
“This is a technically true statement. My test came back negative. However, I was diagnosed as presumed-positive by a physician based on my symptoms,” the librarian said on Wednesday, the first day in two weeks that she wasn’t running a fever, even with round-the-clock doses of Tylenol and ibuprofen. “If we’re really trying to be concerned with everyone’s health, that’s not the answer that you give. . . . Denying the fact that anything occurred is disturbing. Why are you not saying, ‘Yes, we had an exposure. These people should be quarantined. The building should be closed. We should be cleaning’?”
Reyes-Gavilan said that to respect workers’ privacy, he would not discuss the specifics of the Northeast branch case or the Mount Pleasant librarian’s case.
An individual who works in the library system, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that in addition to those two cases, two other library employees have tested positive for the virus, one in April and one in June. Both work in jobs not directly interacting with the public.
One library employee, who is active in the employee union’s coronavirus response, said that even if the library system does inform staff, it has no plan to notify the public of any cases at the library, including people who may have spent an hour using a computer in proximity to the librarian.
“We’re worried about our co-workers, of course. We’re also really worried about our patrons,” the union librarian said. “So many people experiencing homelessness come in. People with young families.”
Another librarian wrote in messages to The Post: “[The health department] is saying they’re having a hard time pinpointing the origins of cases even with contact tracing, and meanwhile the library is neither taking down visitor names or providing info to the public so that the public can get tested. It’s dangerous.”
Reyes-Gavilan said the library’s current policy is not to inform patrons because staff members are not supposed to come within six feet of customers more than momentarily. For example, he said, they’ve been advised not to help patrons use the computers.
Several librarians who spoke with The Post raised other concerns. Some said when the libraries first reopened, they didn’t have cleaning supplies like Lysol in stock. One library employee said the masks that the library provided to staff were too small to fit on some employees’ heads.
Patrons who are now allowed inside the library to use the computers sometimes remove their masks, and have occasionally lashed out at librarians who tell them they must cover their faces, some librarians said. After initially offering outdoor pickup for books that patrons requested, the libraries are now only giving out books indoors, and some librarians said they don’t have adequate shields between themselves and the customer.
Every library is closed from 2 to 3 p.m. each day, a time that the library tells patrons is for cleaning. Some librarians said custodians work hard to clean the building during that hour. But others said their branches didn’t use the time to clean.
“The branch is supposed to be closed between 2 and 3 for cleaning. That’s what has been said to the public. But of course we’re eating lunch and nobody’s cleaning,” said Maria Jones, a Woodridge branch employee. “I’m not really sure who they thought was going to be cleaning up during our union-specified lunchtime. Cleaning is not happening from 2 to 3.”
Reyes-Gavilan said that custodians or special contractors hired for the hour are indeed cleaning every branch from 2 to 3.
At least one librarian encouraged residents to consider checking out online materials, including e-books, audiobooks, movies and music, instead of coming inside the library right now.
“The library is one of the most trusted government agencies,” another librarian wrote to The Post. “Residents just trust that the library is responsible enough that they wouldn’t open if there were a risk.”
Right now, she believes, the library is showing that trust was misplaced.