Evanston Public Library staff members have been on the front line delivering services to the public during the pandemic since the Main library and new Robert Crown branch reopened under a reduced hour schedule after Labor Day.

But some say they do not feel safe in their jobs, and questioned why library officials have not announced a new closure plan with the state back in Phase 3 restriction amid a new surge of Covid-19 cases.

The staff members expressed their concerns in a letter that was a subject of discussion at the Library Board of Trustees Dec.16 meeting.

Lorena Neal, the library’s legal literacy librarian, who works in the library’s Lifelong Learning and Literacy department, submitted the letter, after being asked by several other staff members to convey their concerns about the fact that the library has not announced a new closure plan to date, she said in the opening of the text.

Staff members noted in the letter that Gov. J.B. Pritzker called for Illinois to go back to Phase 3 status, setting in motion new stringencies, on Nov. 20.

“The last time Illinois was in Phase 3, at a time when case numbers were going DOWN, our library reopening plan had the building closed to the public, and limited staff inside for curbside pick-up related operations and tasks,” staff members noted.

Since then, they said, the library has put in new procedures because of the surge in the disease, including extending hold time on requested materials for the now “sufficient” number of patrons who called in to report they are quarantined with Covid.

“And these are just the patrons who (a) know they are sick, and (b) aren’t selfish enough to try to come in to get their books to pass their quarantine time without telling us – in other words, the tip of the iceberg,” the library staff members said.

The Governor’s order for the renewed Phase 3 in Illinois, they pointed out, calls for “all office employees who are able to work from home to do so,” and specifically closes all museums, cultural institutions, and recreation centers (although libraries are not specifically mentioned). 

“All of the other libraries in the CCS (Cooperative Computer System consortium shared by more than 20 area libraries on the North Shore) are either already closed (some doing curbside and some just closed), or will be by Friday (Nov. 20, the day the Governor’s order was to go in effect),” staff members said in the letter.

Concern Over Patrons Not Wearing Masks

In the meantime, the staff members reported there have been numerous mask violations, citing one report observing that 21 people on the main library’s second floor were either not wearing masks correctly or not wearing them at all.

Ms. Neal related in the letter. “One staff member reported to me that so many people pull down their masks as soon as staff are out of sight, it would require having someone walking the floors every 10 minutes to keep up with correcting them. Currently, floor sweeps only occur once every 30 minutes, under ‘ideal’ circumstances. There is not enough staff to do more frequent sweeps,” the staff members asserted.

In cases where staff members do not see such violations, they cannot do anything about it, staff members said in their letter.

“Whether staff can see patrons not wearing their masks or not is irrelevant,” the staff members maintained. “They are in the library, unmasked or improperly masked, for an unknown period of time. This is dangerous to other patrons as well as staff members.”

In discussion at the Dec. 16 meeting, Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons reviewed some of the measures that officials have taken to keep both staff and public safe.

Worried about the spreading Covid virus in March, Ms. Lyons, even as she was going in for surgery, texted Board President Shawn Iles about the need for the library to close its buildings.

Evanston made the move a week ahead of when the Governor’s shutdown order was to take effect, and also ahead of libraries in many other communities.

“I take the safety and health of staff and our patrons very seriously,” Ms. Danczak Lyons said in a phone interview after the Dec. 16 meeting. “I would not be able to forgive myself if the library became a hot spot, a place of contagion, and it has not.”

Measures to Prevent Exposure

At the Dec. 16 meeting, Ms. Lyons detailed for the trustees some of the measures officials took before the libraries reopened to keep to patrons and staff safe.

They included “spreading out the furniture, putting in Plexiglass around our service points, spreading out computers and taking some out of service, signage to encourage people to wear their masks and keep social distance,” she said.

The library also redid some workspaces, creating more space for staff to eat their lunch, she said. “We moved all the hold pickups [for requested library materials] out to the public space so staff doesn’t need to be part of that process,” she said.

In addition, she told trustees, “We created two teams in the main library, so we’ve got a Team A and a Team B, and made sure that we could allow extra space and have social distancing for our staff and track who’s in the building when, and who’s in contact with whom when that become necessary. We’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere.

 “If you’ve been to our library,” she said, “you know that we greet everyone, and take your temperature without touching you, and make sure you’re not symptomatic.”

On mask-wearing, officials make sure people are compliant. “We have provided masks if peoples’ masks are worn or they are not fitting properly,” she said.

In cases where patrons have been failed to comply with three requests for proper mask wearing in an hour, “if there’s no compliance, we ask you to leave and come back and try again tomorrow,” she said.

Ms. Danczak Lyons told the trustees that representatives of AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), the union that represents library employees, were asked to walk through the library spaces and view the measures in place before the buildings reopened.

“And they told us of all the spaces they have looked at, the library has done the most thoughtful and thorough job of putting measures in place, whether it’s physical barriers or policies and procedures.”

Ms. Neal, who confirmed that she submitted the letter at the request of other staff members, referred the RoundTable to the union and administration for further comment.

A representative for AFSCME did not respond to a request for the union’s view on library staff members concerns.)

Ms. Lyons said the library has also consulted with the Evanston Public Health Department on the situation.

“So I check in regularly with it, and make sure there’s nothing more that we should be doing in terms of mitigation and safety and security,” she said. “I am careful, I don’t want to violate any privacy,” she told board members, “but I can tell you the number of staff who have tested positive for COVID you can count on one hand and still have fingers left over. So I think our mitigation is working.”

Part of the Safety Net

Ms. Lyons, as well as some trustees, referred to the special role played by the Library during the pandemic.

“It’s hard,” she acknowledged. “It’s hard for staff to come to work, and even staff that understand that well are not classified as social workers.”

Yet, “our work is essential,” she said. “We’re not just a passive library waiting for you to come in and check out a book or ask a question. We are part of the safety net. And, yes, we love to provide books, but whether it’s computer access to the deepening and widening digital divide … or just the ability to come into a safe  space and have a conversation to give you a break – whether it’s mental health or health resources or information or health resources,” that’s the library’s role too, she said.

Ms. Danczak Lyons stressed to trustees, “I am not precluding the fact that we may have to close again or roll back even further. I mean, we’ve rolled back capacity in the buildings quietly a couple of times…the science and health experts may suggest that we need to roll back further. And we’ll do that carefully and we’ll do that thoughtfully.

For now, though, she said, “we have safety measures in place and they’re working.”

In response, several trustees admitted feeling conflicted on the issue.

“I love the fact that I as well as other people are able to go to the library now,” said trustee Rachel Hayman. “I feel completely safe myself, and I’m just grateful for that. My concern, though, is staff morale, and how large of a problem is this among our staff.”

Mr. Iles prefaced his remarks, “I certainly don’t want to sound dismissive of staff health concerns and insurance concerns, and I certainly understand the stress of dealing with members of the public during a pandemic.”

At the same time, he said, “I just want to take a moment to use as an equity lens to advocate for the homeless and the people that are on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

He noted that if library officials were to close the main branch, “There would be nothing open between the time Hilda’s Place (transitional shelter) closes at 2:30 p.m. and the emergency shelter opens at nine o’clock. There’s no place to go to the bathroom. There’s no place to use computers. There’s no place for resources of any kind. There’s no place to stay warm. And I know that’s not entirely within our mission, but if we close that space there’s nobody to help them currently,” he said.

In the letter, one staff member offered alternatives that would allow the library to maintain equitable services to the community during this stage of the pandemic while increasing the level of safety for patrons and staff.

“Which services do we offer that are so essential that we need to risk staff lives to continue to offer them?” the staff member asked. “Access to physical materials? We can offer curbside pickup again. Access to computers? We can close the other floors of the library and set up the limited computer lab in the community room which we operated at the end of July/beginning of August, or check out the laptops/hot spot combos (through the Library’s new “Borrow the Internet” program) we have to the few patrons that are coming to use them.”

“We don’t currently have a library social worker, and are referring social- work related questions to other organizations anyway,” the staff member pointed out.

Ultimately, the staff member asked, “I want to know why I am continuing to put my life and my long-term health at risk to come in to work and be exposed to patrons who, in many cases, openly disdain our safety procedures.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.