Even after COVID-19 earned declaration as a pandemic and public health emergency, libraries made preparations for what that would mean. Many closed, shifting to digital work. One notable exception was Chicago Public Library, which kept their libraries open far past a point where staff felt safe, implementing no new safety measures to protect them.

Now, Chicago Public Library aims to be among the first major library systems to open. Staff are to report back to their assigned libraries beginning Wednesday, May 20, with a targeted reopening date of Monday, June 1, as addressed in an email by Andrea Telli, Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, to all staff Thursday, May 14.

Illinois’s Governor Pritzker extended stay at home orders through the end of May, and he, along with his team, developed a five-stage plan for reopening the state. Each region of the state has been designated by number, with targeted changes in their stage of reopening to mirror what’s being seen in terms of new cases of COVID-19 in those regions. Chicago and surrounding suburbs are on target to enter phase 3 at the end of May.

Phase 3 allows for reopening of offices, salons, and barber shops, all with limited capacities. Face coverings are required, and groups of 10 or fewer are allowed. This phase is able to happen because of expanded testing capacity and contact tracing.

“All of our sheltering efforts, however, are paying off – we are beginning to see a flattening of the curve of new infections and Mayor Lightfood and Governor Pritzker have laid out their plans to carefully and safely begin to reopen Chicago and the rest of Illinois,” reads Telli’s email.

This, however, isn’t true.

Earlier this week, Pritzker announced new research that showed Illinois hasn’t hit its peak, with a new peak date of infection projected for mid-June. Chicago and Cook County surpassed Queens in terms of confirmed cases on Thursday, May 14, marking now the highest current rate of positive cases of the illness.

Libraries are making plans for their reopening. The bulk involve curbside service, with significant planning for employee protection, including but not limited to face masks and gloves — both supplied by the library and supplied by the individual — as well as required testing of staff each day before the beginning of their shift (which in and of itself is rife with problems). Questions continue to circulate in the library world regarding the necessity to quarantine materials borrowed, as physical objects may potentially spread COVID-19, and many staff members are preparing to continue not holding programs, as well as to spend a not-insignificant amount of their days cleaning.

The Chicago Public Library system, however, is handling this a little differently, endangering the health and well-being of their staff, as well as the communities in which they aim to serve.

“While all staff is to return on May 20, I do understand we are in an uncertain and changing environment,” reads Telli’s email. “The City of Chicago has updated its workforce and leave policies for City employees.”

The new policy, named the Families First Response Act Policy (FFRAP), allows for certain eligible employees to take paid time off in order to protect themselves, as well as care for others. Signed by the President, the policy allows for a period of sick time to be used following symptoms of COVID-19, as well as a period of time for employees to employ the benefits if they’re at home with childcare needs. The City of Chicago has also extended libraries’ SitterCity benefits, meaning that staff can access up to three months of free premium services through SitterCity.

Library staff are put between a rock and a hard place, given that these policies alleviate some concerns while bringing about a host of new ones. Who will be watching children? What sort of background testing have they had? What if they unknowingly transmit COVID-19 to their charges?

“Base hours at all locations from May 20 – May 31 will be Monday-Friday, 9 am – 5 pm. Full time staff will be required to work their full work day, with part time staff working a schedule for 20 hours a week,” notes Telli’s email.

Staff at many Chicago Public Libraries rely on public transit to get to and from their workplace. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) saw an 80% drop in ridership during the lockdown, and officials for CTA have stated that things will be changing. This may mean the end of typical rush hour experiences and services. Metra, which services the suburbs into the city, has also changed their schedules significantly.

This means getting to and from work at this juncture may be impossible. Are those staff eligible for FFRAP? Or must they use their accrued time off benefits? For part-time staff, many of whom don’t have health or time off benefits, the reality looks even more bleak.

Preparations for the reopening of Chicago Public Libraries were also outlined in the email:

“Among those will be:

  • Cloth face masks and disposable gloves for all CPL employees.
  • Additional security to help manage public access, ensure that face masks are worn by the public, and that social distancing rules are being followed at all facilities.
  • Additional, enhanced custodial services at each facility.
  • Additional hand sanitizing supplies at each facility for the staff and public.
  • Visitor capacity limits in our buildings and work spaces, including suspension of meeting and study room use.
  • Plans and preparations for physical distancing of furniture and equipment in our public and work areas.
  • Plans and preparation to ensure staff protections at our circulation and reference desks.
  • Temporary policies limiting  public computer use and cash handling.
  • Recommendations for abbreviated reference, information, and circulation transactions.
  • Temporary quarantining of returned materials.
  • Suspension of shared toys and manipulatives in the early learning play spaces.
  • Virtual training produced by the City’s Department of Human Resources on social distancing and other Covid-19 best practices.”

The email continues to encourage staff to practice social distancing and remain six feet or more apart from one another. If they or anyone in their household is experiencing illness, they should stay home.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn’t that easy to detect. The problem with the illness is that asymptomatic carriers unknowingly spread it from person to person, making it challenging to know if someone is or is not sick and whether or not they’re a public health hazard. This is precisely why stay at home orders have been helpful in reducing the disease’s outbreak.

Germs from asymptomatic carriers are the biggest problem, and while face masks and gloves offer some protections, CPL’s outline leaves significantly more questions than answers. The plans are vague — “limiting computer use,” “abbreviated reference, information, and circulation transactions” — and they don’t establish guidelines for what it is the system plans to provide its most vital asset: it’s staff.

Gloves are helpful only if they’re disposed of between interactions. Will CPL be providing a day’s worth of gloves? What about enough masks for the realities of working with the public for 8 hours in one? What happens if a staff member wearing a mask sneezes while it’s on?

What about allergies staff has to latex or other materials used for gloves?

None of these realities are addressed in Telli’s email, and while it’s likely these will be discussed during the week and a half of time between staff returning to the workplace and doors opening, staff are being given no assurance that their well-being is crucial.

One staff member who remains anonymous said they spent the evening crying in fear after reading the email, while others have felt outraged, angry, and confused. No other major metropolitan library system has reopened, and Chicago, still deeply entrenched in new cases and an ever-rising death count, should not be the leader.

“We should continue to frequently wash our hands, use hand sanitizer, and avoid touching our faces,” reads Telli’s letter. “And finally, we should be patient and kind to ourselves and one another.”

Nothing about Chicago Public Library’s rush to reopen is patient nor kind to the humans about to put their lives and health on the line.

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