Evanston Public Library officials have been lifting restrictions and carefully returning services to the City’s libraries as the area recovers from COVID-19.

At the April 21 Library Board meeting, some trustees spoke about speeding up the process and called for a roadmap to chart progress.

“What you’re thinking about is a path to full openness – if that’s the right phrase,” suggested Board member Adam Goodman at the meeting, held virtually because of social distancing constraints. “Maybe not necessarily with dates, but with some indicators that would say, ‘We’re now open at this level, and when we get to these kinds of indicators – no guarantee, but these are the form of indicators that would allow us to then go to this next level.’”

Board President Shawn Iles started off the discussion, pointing to some steps that had already been made.

“The staff has had a chance to get vaccinated,” he said. “I think that we’re no longer quarantining folks. And I’m getting questions and a push from the community, especially working with homeless residents,” said Mr. Iles, about “when they can expect to have more access to our spaces, physically, so they can be on the computer and things like that.” He is Program Director at Interfaith Action of Evanston and manages an overnight shelter.

Currently, Library officials “are following the science,” lifting some restrictions and planning out programs with the hope of a fuller recovery by fall, said Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, addressing the issue.

“As of this past Monday we’re no longer quarantining materials, so that change has been made,” she said.

“We are planning our summer programs to be produced primarily out-of-doors, so that it’s easier to social distance and let everyone have fun together in the park,” she said.

In the meantime, she told the trustees, policies and procedures instituted within the Library promoting social distancing as well as a 100-person-at-a-time limit in the main library, 1703 Orrington Ave., “appear to be working,” she said.

“We have not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 in the libraries, and I’m very proud of that,” Ms. Danczak Lyons said. Other North suburban libraries, whether through staff-to-staff or patron-to-staff spread, have experienced outbreaks and had to close and quarantine again, she said.

With Evanston public school students expected to return to school in fall, she said, “we’re looking at how we would be able to expand some more hours, and provide more in-library services.

“That’s not to suggest that I’m planning on going up to 12-hour days necessarily in the fall,” she added, “but we’re looking at expanding more hours.”

As things stand currently, she told Board members, “I can tell you that with a 100-person [maximum] capacity in the main library, we’ve had 65 or 70 people. We have not been bumping up [against] that 100-person capacity.”

On computer use, the library is maintaining a one-hour limit, she said. “We’re watching that and rarely have we had anyone push back and say. ‘I’d like to stay longer.’”

Officials are looking at putting out more chairs and furniture and adding some computers on the third floor of the main library, especially in the teen loft room, in time for fall, she said.

“So we continue to evaluate what our actual experience is, we continue to make adjustments,” Ms. Danczak Lyons said, “but the [test] positivity rates keep bouncing all around,” she said. “And I’ve always said that I could never forgive myself if we became a place where contact tracing showed we had become a place of contagion. And so we’re just being careful.”

In discussion, though, trustee Rachel Hayman, leading off, said “I guess I’m not convinced that we shouldn’t expand our hours and make them into something more normal.

“If we’re following the science, and kids are back in school, and people finally have access to the vaccine,” she said, “I’m not sure why we should wait until fall.”

She noted that both the Skokie and the Wilmette public libraries appeared to have returned to more normal hours.

Skokie Public Library hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays; and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays, with a one-hour time limit, a library employee said on April 23.

The Wilmette Public Library is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturdays; and closed Sundays, a person answering the phone there said. That library would like patrons to keep their visits under an hour, she said.

By comparison, the main Evanston Public Library is currently open from 12 to 6 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturdays; 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays  and Thursdays; and closed on Sundays.

Mr. Goodman suggested that Ms. Danczak Lyons provide some kind of briefing at the Board’s May meeting about a path to a full opening.

As for the road map, “I think, at a minimum we should be able to say, ‘If we’re at stage X right now, these are the indicators that we are most closely watching that would tell us we can go to stage Y.’”

Trustee Tracy Fulce cautioned that officials need to be conscientious not only about the bigger numbers, suggesting recovery, “but as I understand it, while [in] Evanston a large number of the population has been vaccinated, we also have these problematic variants that are popping up.”

She noted that “there has been a pretty dramatic increase in the number of hospitalizations, and those seem to be targeted in specific communities. And so, we might want to be conscientious about ensuring that we don’t increase the hours and perhaps expose our staff members, or the most vulnerable of our community to this crazy COVID-19.”

Ben Schapiro, another trustee, spoke in support of Mr. Goodman’s suggestion for a roadmap. Mr. Schapiro, former Library Director in Morton Grove, said he also agreed with Ms. Hayman’s point that “we could probably be pushing hours a bit.”

“I am not encouraging the director to not follow the science. I think that is an important point, but I think we can look for a little loosening of our concerns,” he said, adding he expected staff to weigh in on the subject.

In December, staff members submitted a letter to the Board, questioning why Evanston libraries were remaining open while other North Shore libraries were either closed or closing, with the State back in Phase 3 restriction amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

Ms. Danczak Lyons said of the challenge ahead, “part of it is safety and precaution, part of it is staffing. Certainly, we are going to be going through lessons learned. We still have patrons that do not want to come in the library, that we still [have] curbside pickup so that continues to be an issue.

“There are many concerns and many opinions and many facets of this that we will continue to focus on and do the best that we can to serve people in a way that’s truly of service to them and keeps them comfortable and safe as well.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.