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Reopening of Maine libraries during COVID-19 depends on location and set-up, experts say

The Maine State Library is tracking the status of libraries in the state. As of July 9, 173 have responded -- seven are closed, 105 are curb-side, and 61 are open.

BANGOR, Maine — After a quiet and isolated winter, businesses like restaurants, gyms, and spas are slowly buzzing back to life. These facilities have followed stages of reopening, implemented by the state -- and come Phase 1, 2, or 3, it's been relatively clear who is and isn't allowed to reopen.

The protocol for libraries, though, has been different, leaving some tax-payers confused as to why their local facility has not opened its doors yet but others have. The Maine State Library has been facilitating this complicated process, advising libraries how and when they should reopen -- and what steps they should take to do that. Experts say a number of factors including location, size and set-up, and conditions of staff members are taken into consideration.

"(Staff members) really (have) to look into their library -- go into the children’s room, go into a reading room, go into the area where circulation is," Janet McKenney, the director of library development at the MSL, explained to NEWS CENTER Maine via Zoom. "It’s like, 'How many people can be in the space and social distance?' So, beyond like the square footage guidance that you might get for retail and grocery stores... It’s very different."

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An MSL database has been tracking the status of 256 libraries in Maine. As of Thursday, July 9, 173 libraries had submitted responses, indicating:

  • Seven are completely closed to the public.
  • 105 are offering curbside pick-up or other lending.
  • 61 are open to the public, either fully or with limited services.

A federally-funded study released findings on June 22, regarding how long the coronavirus can live on library materials. It indicates COVID-19 can survive on hardback and paperback covers and DVD cases for up to a day; and paper pages and plastic book coverings for up to 72 hours. That's why the MSL is encouraging facilities to quarantine library materials for three days once they are returned before lending them to other people.

McKenney says the steps they are taking are designed to keep visitors and staff members safe. 

"We want library patrons and the people of Maine to know that we have their safety in mind and that we are putting these practices in effect -- and that they know when they pick up that book at their local library, (it) was quarantined for 72 hours, and the library worker used gloves or had sanitized hands to put it in a bag to hand it to them," McKenney emphasized.

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The MSL has been holding weekly meetings on Tuesday since March 17 for updates about reopening procedure. McKenney says close to 200 people representing libraries attend those meetings -- including the Bangor Public Library, which has not reopened yet.

"We’ve done everything we can to have the highest level of service possible during the closure right now," explained Ben Treat, the library director at the BPL. "We just don’t want to be something that causes a resurgence of disease, to be a place where the disease gets worse. I know there’s different opinions as to what causes (the) disease to get worse and spread faster; but the best advice we have is that being open right now -- it’s not going to be a safe thing for the patrons or for the staff."

Treat says he understands taxpayers' frustrations, since they are not able to get inside but wants people to know staff members are doing their best to provide fulfilling virtual experiences and programs. He told NEWS CENTER Maine that the number of people attending BPL programming has actually increased -- more than 100 people from all over the state (and even beyond) usually tune in online.

Treat says people can request books in advance through the online catalogue or over the phone, and staff will bring them to the door for pick-up. The BPL has also pushed its wi-fi network to reach the parking lot across the street, so more people can access it. The next goal the library has is to start allowing one person in at a time for 45-minute computer sessions. Treat hopes that step will be able to start on July 15. 

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The reopening date for the BPL at this point is unclear. Treat says they are looking to the MSL and local schools to determine when it may be safe to start welcoming people back inside. When they do, procedure will likely look different -- Treat says only about 20 people will be allowed in at a time, and most seating options will be removed to prevent extended stays. Staff members will also have to consider what Treat calls "pinch points" to make sure there aren't crowds of people gathering in places like the circulation desk.

"We just want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide as normal an interaction as possible with patrons," Treat expressed.

To read more about COVID-19 procedures for Maine libraries per the MSL, click here.

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