Libraries follow new norms under COVID

By David J. Coehrs -

Seven months after COVID-19 began to rewrite societal rules, Fulton County’s libraries are among organizations trying to regain a semblance of normalcy.

However, with the coronavirus causing reduced staffs and patronage, suspended programs, and a decrease in state funding due to economic hardship, those community mainstays expect current restrictions and limitations to stay in place until at least year’s end.

And yet, local library directors say, the public is grateful the facilities have managed to remain in service.

“It’s had a big impact on everything we do,” Swanton Public Library Director Adam Walter said. “The main thing that we hear is that (people are) just happy we’re open. People are grateful for it. We’re just trying to accommodate with these new regulations.”

Located at 305 Chestnut St., the Swanton library reopened June 29 after being shuttered since March. Three of 10 employees were furloughed at the time, although all have since returned to duty.

Following state protocol, masks and social distancing rules are mandatory for everyone entering the building; staff members wear both masks and gloves. Occupancy is limited to 21 people in the main area, half of what the fire code permits. Library hours have been reduced over five days, and the number of chairs at tables has decreased in order to abide by the six-foot separation rule. Public computer banks have also been separated.

Per advice from the Ohio Library Council, anything checked out of the library undergoes quarantine before it’s checked back in. From books to magazines to DVDs, all returned items spend a week in a room designated for that purpose before they’re permitted to be borrowed again. Walter said that’s the reported amount of time it takes for the virus to dissipate on the items’ surfaces.

He said the library has always sanitized books, “but we’ll clean things if they’re noticeably dirty.”

As for regular activities and programming, “We’ve had to rethink how we do everything,” Walter said. The library has moved to virtual programming and created activities patrons can take home to complete.

“That’s why traffic has gone down,” he added. Daily patronage has dropped by half.

And while the library took a significant hit from the state library fund in May and June – by about 40% – it has since recovered to within 3% of normal finances.

“Pretty much every library had the same thing,” Walter said.

Evergreen Community Library, at 253 Maple St. in Metamora, closed for two months earlier this year before reopening to the public in mid-May after the board of trustees conferred with the Fulton County Health Department. But restrictions are in place, staff members have been reduced from seven to five, hours of operation have been cut, and masks for adults and social distancing are regulated. High-traffic surfaces are sanitized often.

“At this time the board felt it best that we keep our reduced staff and reduced hours,” Director Carrie Hulett said.

Patrons average 25 daily, as compared to 45 prior to coronavirus. Hulett said the library still offers curbside pick-up for visitors hesitant to enter, “but people are thrilled that they can come in. We haven’t had anyone who made a fuss about wearing masks. It’s not been a problem for us.”

COVID-19 changes also include the indefinite suspension of all in-house activities and programs, a reduced number of chairs surrounding tables and public computers to comply with social distancing, and increased cleaning.

All returned DVDs and CDs are immediately sanitized and restocked, since their non-porous surfaces are easy to clean. But books and magazines undergo 72 hours of quarantine.

And like libraries across the state, reduced state funding affected by the coronavirus has been problematic. “We’re being more conservative with our purchasing. We don’t want to be in the hole beginning 2021,” Hulett said.

One bright spot, she said, is that the extra safety measures have comforted staff members. “Our staff’s been really wonderful. They’ve done a really good job,” she said.

Director Sonya Huser said Archbold Community Library reopened to patrons July 6 after being closed for three months. The library at 205 Stryker St. still offers curbside service for people reluctant to enter the building. Employees wear masks and stagger shifts to help reduce contact.

And while state restrictions are in place, not all visitors obey. Huser said some claim health reasons, and in general about 90% comply, but the mask rule is difficult to enforce.

“It’s hard, because it is a statewide mandate,” she said. “We have signs posted and we are all wearing masks. But there’s only so much you can do. Most people know that’s something the library has control over. We’re trying to make sure we’re not the source of a local outbreak, so we’re doing everything we can.”

An alarm sounds in the circulation department every hour, alerting staff to sanitize high-traffic surfaces throughout the facility. Of eight public computers, the six in use are distanced from one another and sanitized after each use. Fewer chairs are at tables, and all are vinyl-covered, making them easier to clean.

Returned items are quarantined for 72 hours, with the exception of magazines and toddlers’ board books. Those items are sealed off in a room for five days due to their more susceptible surfaces.

Huser said there are no restrictions on a patron’s length of stay. “It’s not necessary for us here,” she said. “There are things we can control…but how long a patron decides to stay – it’s just not worth it to try to control.

Restrooms are available, since it seemed unreasonable to keep them closed when the staff has access to a restroom, she said.

And because the library doesn’t offer much adult programming it hasn’t been affected by COVID-19. Some activities have gone virtual, and the staff has substituted story times with kits that children can complete at home.

Still, patronage is half of what is was a year ago, Huser said. She said those hesitant to visit can take advantage of the inter-library loan program.

Financially, Archbold Community Library is stable, although “we’re just trying to be mindful and not overspend,” Huser said. “We’re still trying to be cautious; I just don’t know what to expect with fall and winter. Beyond opening up up some more hours I don’t anticipate programming or extra seating coming back this calendar year.”

By David J. Coehrs

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.