The District reopened 20 branches in March; Prince George’s County welcomed customers back indoors on April 28; Baltimore City residents have been able to flip through books in person for nearly two months. When Fairfax County reopened libraries six weeks ago, hundreds flocked to their neighborhood branches.
All of these localities have higher daily coronavirus case rates than highly educated, book-loving Montgomery, where test positivity dipped below 3 percent in April. In six of the past 10 days, there have been no covid-related deaths in the county. And as of this week, nearly 55 percent of the suburb’s 1 million residents had gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, which is higher than both the national and state averages.
Montgomery officials say their prudent approach to reopening has kept residents protected from recent coronavirus surges that have ailed neighboring communities. In addition, a government-wide hiring freeze put in place at the start of the pandemic means the library system is down 75 employees compared with last March. Many of the remaining staff are nervous about returning to work in person, the president of their union said.
Recreation centers and senior centers in the county also remain closed, even though they have been opened elsewhere.
“Reopening of things in the county is a priority for us, and we’re getting to the point where we will be able to,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said when asked about the issue Wednesday. “We want to be thoughtful so we don’t wind up creating more problems.”
The county announced Friday afternoon that it would reopen six library branches and two senior centers in June — a change that some residents and lawmakers say is too little, too late. “It’s completely inadequate,” said county council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large).
Part of the challenge, head of emergency management Earl Stoddard said, is that government leaders are still in the process of “extricating” employees in the recreation department who were redeployed to help with coronavirus testing and vaccinations. Two recreation centers are also providing overflow capacity for homeless shelters that have had to impose physical distancing requirements.
Gino Renne, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994 Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, said the covid-19 deaths of six county government workers left many employees skittish about returning to their jobs in person — even if they are vaccinated.
“Nobody is excited about it, to be honest with you,” said Renne, a close Elrich ally. “People need to accept that even with the heightened protection of the vaccination, the anxiety and fear levels in the average county employee is still pretty high.”
But for Montgomery’s library-goers — namely, the young, the elderly, the poor and bookworms of all backgrounds — the slow return to in-person services has been hard to bear. Being able to pick up preordered books through the library’s “Holds to Go!” program is appreciated but far from ideal, they say. The many residents who used to use the library to access WiFi, print documents and attend activities have few other free alternatives.
A frustrated young father in Silver Spring applied for a D.C. library card recently and plans to cross the border into the city so his 2-year-old can explore the children’s section. A psychologist from Rockville who spent most of her academic career inside libraries burst into tears when she stepped into a reopened branch in rural Harford County, 76 miles away. A 15-year-old from Aspen Hill Park, who was a voracious reader pre-pandemic, has been trying audio books but often finds her hands and her mind drifting to the colorful Instagram app on her iPhone screen.
“It’s going to take political will to reopen them, and for some reason — I don’t know why — that doesn’t seem to be there,” said Paul Meyer, the young father.
Jennifer Reesman, the psychologist, said the ongoing closure of libraries is reflective of “how messed up our priorities are.” Restaurants and bookstores have been reopened for months, she noted. The county lifted restrictions on escape rooms, a kind of in-person interactive game, in April.
“We’ve prioritized reopening virtually everything else before our libraries,” said Reesman, who used to regularly visit the Rockville library with her 11-year-old. “What does that say about us? What does it say about how we value education?”
Communities nationwide are wrestling with similar questions of how to manage the return to normalcy while preserving public health. Discussions are robust in places like Montgomery, which has prided itself on responding to the pandemic with an “abundance of caution” and opted, at every stage of reopening, to go slower than the rest of the state and region.
Some lawmakers think Elrich is moving too slowly — especially given that 85 percent of seniors, who are most vulnerable to the virus, have been vaccinated.
Government leaders have said for weeks that they “are on the verge” of solving the logistical issues holding back the reopening of libraries and senior centers, said Riemer, a frequent Elrich critic who is weighing a bid for county executive in 2022. Keeping the facilities closed disproportionately affects those in the community who cannot afford to order books online, socialize at restaurants or keep healthy at private gyms, he added.
“The county government is way behind the curve. I get it if there’s a health risk that’s too great, but that’s not the issue here,” Riemer said.
Becky Taylor, 47, is not sure how long more her family can afford to wait.
A teacher at Sherwood High School, Taylor juggles teaching in person with caring for her two teenage children and her 74-year-old mother, who lives alone in Leisure World. Pre-pandemic, her daughter Gwen, 15, was able to occupy herself with the 20 to 30 books she hauled home every few weeks from Aspen Hill Library; her mother, Amy Boltz, spent virtually every weekday at the Holiday Park senior center. Both of them sorely miss the facilities, she said.
Boltz has been coming over to the Taylors’ home in Rockville for daily walks but is anxious to return to Holiday Park, where she attended exercises classes, had meals and put on plays, among other things. She only knows how to use her cellphone to call into the biweekly Zoom meetings with her friends, so she has not been able to see their faces.
“I love my mom, but it’s a lot having a full-time job, two children and being her social connection to the outside world,” Taylor said.
She added that while she is glad to know that Holiday Park will reopen limited in-person services on June 14, she worries about how much more Boltz’s physical and mental health could decline over the next month.
Boltz feels the same way: “Family’s great, but people your own age are important,” she said. She was elated to be vaccinated in February but did not expect that three months on, she would still be spending most of her waking hours in front of the television, watching crime shows and “The View.” She has reread dozens of her romance novels and, like her granddaughter, misses roaming through the stacks at the library.
“I really, really can’t wait to get back,” she said. “Being stuck at our own homes — it’s just not healthy.”