READING - As Reading Public Library Director Amy Lannon eyes the partial restoration of department services, the Board of Health earlier this week removed a major barrier to those reopening goals by revoking the emergency order that shuttered the Middlesex Avenue facility.
During a virtual meeting at the outset of this week, the Board of Health unanimously agreed to rescind a public health directive that required the library to close its doors to the public in late March, when Reading began recording its first positive COVID-19 cases.
As such, the library is now able to expand its reopening efforts in a manner consistent with the multi-phased business reopening plan outlined by Mass. Governor Charles Baker’s office. Presently, the state is about two-weeks into the launch of Phase 3, which lets public libraries reopen at a 40 percent occupancy level.
As Lannon explained at the recent meeting, she has not even started formalizing plans for reopening the library, as the local closure order had prevented staff members from unveiling other modified service offerings under Phase 2.
“What I’m not hearing is that by this date or within the next week, we’ll vote to open this or that building. We haven’t even tried out all of Phase 2, which is allowing a person to come into the circulation desk [to pickup pre-reserved materials],” explained the library director, who urged the Board of Health to consider loosening their emergency directive.
“Phase 3 includes some computer use and [other services]. But we’re nervous about even talking about a proposal for the Phase 3 and doing the work around that until [we have some idea of when a vote will be taken to let us reopen],” she added.
The five-person Board of Health, which includes three voting and two associate members, amended the emergency public health order after a lengthy conversation with Town Manager Bob Lelacheur and other department heads about partially reopening Town Hall and various other public buildings.
Unable to reach a final decision regarding the scope of applicable disease prevention and disinfection measures that will be required of Reading’s returning municipal workforce, the Board of Health ultimately tabled that broader decision to a future meeting.
“Our plan, in light of all the comments we’ve received [from department heads and managers], is to review all of these protocols on Thursday,” said Board of Health Chair Eleanor Tate Shonkoff.
Board of Health members Shonkoff and Kerry Dunnell during the recent reopening talks appeared surprised by pushback over proposed reopening rules like requiring employee temperature checks, the imposition of strict facial covering and social-distancing mandates, and requirements that common areas and frequently-touched surfaces be cleaned multiple times a day.
Many of the same requirements are considered non-negotiable mandates for private sector businesses looking to reopen their brick-and-mortar operations, and under the state’s Phase 3 reopening guidance, public libraries will be held to similar standards.
Because Lannon has laid out a library-specific reopening policy that mirrors the state’s Phase 3 reopening criteria, the Board of Health agreed to consider the proposal and delay the discourse on the rest of the municipality.
The Board of Health also adopted Lannon’s request after Lelacheur acknowledged that unlike other shuttered buildings and offices around town, there is a pent up citizen demand for library services.
“I would agree the library does come first in terms of pure interest and demand. We don’t see [a public outcry] to reopen Town Hall,” the town manager stated.
Under Phases 2 and 3 of the state’s economic reopening plan, local librarians were allowed to slowly begin transitioning back to an in-person service provider.
According to Lannon, under Phase 2 of Baker’s proposal, communities could allow extremely limited contacts between individual library patrons and staff members, who on an appointment-basis would be allowed to hand to citizens books and other materials that were reserved in advance.
The library has put into effect a curbside pickup model, another service allowed under Phase 2.
Under Phase 3 of the reopening plan, public library staffers must adhere to the following restrictions when allowing patrons back into their buildings:
• The total number of people allowed in the building at once (including staff) must be limited to 40 percent of the maximum occupancy stipulated in building permits;
• No single enclosed room within a building may contain more than 8 people per 1,000 square feet of space;
• Separation of at least six-feet must be maintained between visitors;
• Temperature checks and COVID-19 symptom screens should be conducted by staffers before they report to work each day, and secondary screens must be overseen by designated managers between each work shift;
• Handwashing and sanitation stations must be provided throughout the facility, and cleaning products must be made available to staffers;
• Public/common works stations and equipment must be disinfected between each use, while returned books should be “quarantined’ for at least 24 hours before being placed back on a shelf;
• A six-foot separation is also recommended between staff working stations, which must be divided with plexiglass or other physical barriers in instances where that distance cannot be established;
• Common areas such as lobbies and break/lunch rooms must be reconfigured to allow social distancing;
• Visual floor markers are recommended to help patrons stay six-feet apart while waiting in lines to checkout materials or use the restroom;
• Lunch and break times should be staggered to ensure six-feet of separation can be maintained;