Forsyth county library’s continued curbside pick-up service raises concerns amongst staff and community.
At least one staff member with the Forsyth county public library system said that they are concerned for their own health and safety, that of their co-workers and the wider community because of an ongoing book pick-up service at all 10 of the library system’s locations.
While the libraries are closed to visitors, all branches of the library system began offering what they call “to-go library pickups,” in which patrons can request books and pick them up from carts outside of the libraries. Libraries in Greensboro and High Point closed a few weeks ago.
During a virtual briefing conducted by the Forsyth County Commission on March 26, Commissioner Fleming El-Amin, who represents District A, brought up concerns about the ongoing service.
“People are touching books and putting them in the drop-offs,” he said. “I’m asking can we close down that operations, too? I think other commissioners mostly agree with me.”
According to a March 27 memo by Assistant County Manager Shontell Robinson, the decision to continue curbside pick-up service was made after Robinson spoke with Dr. Christopher Ohl, the county’s public health medical director for communicable disease. The memo states that Ohl is also a physician at Wake Forest Baptist Health, and is considered an infectious disease expert.
“I asked Dr. Ohl for his medical opinion regarding the safety of our current operations and whether he advises closing the library,” Robinson writes in the memo. “He states that he is confident that current operations are safe and are probably even ‘over-kill.’ He further remarked that we are probably safer than take-out food operations.”
Sanders-Pratt told Triad City Beat on Monday that strict measures were in place to ensure the safety of both patrons and staff. He said books are being quarantined for 72 hours and that most books, if not all, are being disinfected as well.
“We felt like the libraries still have a usefulness for people who are required to stay at home,” Sanders-Pratt said. “The same way that park facilities are practicing good social distancing, we feel like if we do the same, the library resources can also be available to the public.”
One library staff member, who asked to remain anonymous out of a fear of retaliation, said that they are concerned for their own safety as well as the safety of patrons.
“I’m concerned about the idea that we are legitimately enticing people out of their homes during a stay-at-home order,” they said. “I think it’s great that there’s so much support for this library system but at the same time, I cannot say that it is truly an essential service along the lines of grocery, or vehicle fuel. It’s not essential in that respect.”
Sanders-Pratt said that under the Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-a-home order, “bookstores that sell educational material” are considered essential and may continue to operate. In an email, Sanders-Pratt said that “although public libraries do not ‘sell’ educational material to assist with homeschooling, public libraries are a way for those who cannot afford to buy educational material to acquire it as well.”
Additionally, the county adopted Winston-Salem’s own stay-at-home order on March 27 which includes “educational institutions” as an essential operations. The city’s stay-at-home order also states that “travel to or from educational institutions for purposes of receiving materials for distance learning” is allowed.
The staff member also said that while books that have been dropped off are being quarantined for 72 hours, not all books are being disinfected. Only ones that have been put on hold are being wiped down.
“Each book is not being wiped down,” they said. “That’s a practical impossibility.”
A January study in the Journal of Hospital Infection reported that coronaviruses similar to COVID-19 can persist on paper for four or five days. More recently, data from the National Institutes of Health found that the virus has the potential to be detected for up to 24 hours on cardboard. The study did not expressly look at the virus’s viability on paper.
Other library systems in the Triad have already shut down operations.
The Greensboro libraries suspended all services with the exception of online and e-book holds on March 17, while libraries in High Point closed the day before.
The Forsyth county library staff member said that they don’t understand why their library system hasn’t followed suit.
“I don’t know why the local government feel that they’re standouts and shouldn’t follow the lead that other municipalities in the area have made,” they said. “Honestly, it makes me feel uncared for, and I’m baffled.”
The American Library Association, a nonprofit and the oldest and largest library association in the world, released a statement on March 17, recommending that library leaders and their governing bodies evaluate closing libraries to the public.
“Keeping libraries open at this time has the potential to harm communities more than help,” the statement reads.
The staff member said that library staff are being encouraged to practice regular hand-washing and use latex gloves to handle materials. But that doesn’t reassure them, the staff member said.
On any given shift, library staff handles hundreds of books, they said. And sometimes, they forget to wear gloves in between handling.
“I have caught myself a couple of times handling without gloves,” they said. “We’re not perfect.”
The staff member said that given the fact that those infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and that there is a stay-at-home order, they don’t understand why the libraries would continue to offer this service.
“Almost everyone shows some level of concern for their own personal safety and the potential to bring it back to someone in their family,” they said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to radically minimize contact as much as possible.”
The staff member’s concerns are not isolated.
According to a Google Doc that was created by Sacramento public librarian Casey Manno on March 17, hundreds of librarians from across the country share these worries. The spreadsheet shows entries put in by workers that state whether their libraries have closed to the public, what kind of library they are, and what kind of pay the staff is getting.
In North Carolina, workers from Alamance, Cabarrus, Iredell, Moore, Poke, and Wake counties have all commented in the spreadsheet, stating an array of situations from being open for regular hours to offering curbside pick-up like Forsyth’s system.
According to a library staff update by Forsyth’s interim library director Elizabeth Skinner, employees who decide to not come into work must use their sick and vacation time for pay.
“Once they have used all of this leave, they would go on an unpaid status,” the memo reads.
The update also states that “if a staff member tests positive for COVID-19, or is quarantined for any reason, they would become eligible for Family First Coronavirus Response Act benefits,” but would not receive worker’s compensation.
“I have coworkers at this branch who have started using their paid leave time,” the staff member said. “But I need this income, so I keep coming to work. I could be at home, but I do in fact need this income.”