Ann Hebert of Gray helps her daughter Kylie, 8, pick out books at the Gray Public Library on Tuesday. The Hebert children had read all the books they checked out the night before the library closed in March.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

After nearly two months of being stuck in the house, a trip to the Gray Public Library on Tuesday was the first big outing for 8-year-old Kylie Hebert and her younger brother Caiden.

“We were all excited,” said their mother, Ann Hebert. “I thought (the library) was a safe place to get them out of the house.”

The Heberts, who live in Gray, took advantage of the library’s limited reopening Tuesday to stock up on books for the kids, who had read through all the ones they had checked out the night before the library closed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Gray library is believed to be the first in southern Maine to reopen since the outbreak reached Maine. With no specific guidance yet available from state officials about how to open safely, other local libraries are still developing plans for accepting book returns, offering curbside pickup and allowing staff members and patrons back into the buildings.

While libraries have not been ordered to remain closed, it could be weeks before many reopen and months before they offer a full slate of services and activities.

The Maine State Library has been leading an effort to develop guidelines for libraries to use as they reopen, and on Tuesday shared a draft checklist with state officials and libraries across the state.

Government operations at the state, county and municipal level are considered essential services and buildings were not required to close in response to the pandemic. Many towns and cities across the state have closed most municipal buildings – including libraries – to the public and arranged to have employees work from home, but some town offices have stayed open to the public in some capacity.

Maine State Librarian James Ritter said he hopes the checklist will be finalized by mid-May and can be used by library staffs as they plan to resume operations.

“My sense is that in June, many libraries are going to begin offering services,” he said.

Josh Tiffany, director of the Gray Public Library, works behind newly installed Plexiglas at the checkout station, one of several precautions the library had taken as it reopened Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ritter said the draft checklist, which will be updated based on feedback from state officials and librarians, addresses the unique challenges libraries face.

Returned materials could be contaminated, as could materials that patrons handle inside the buildings. Patrons often come from vulnerable populations, including older people and those who are homeless and visit the library for computer access and other services. Libraries are also community gathering places.

The draft checklist reflects the minimum steps a library should consider before reopening, according to Ritter.

It includes requiring all employees and patrons to wear face coverings, and providing employees with gloves that should be changed between tasks, such as shelving and checking out books. Libraries should also quarantine all returned books and other materials for 72 hours until there is further guidance on how long strains of the coronavirus can remain viable on 25 types of library items.

Other recommendations include using plexiglass barriers, limiting the number of people allowed inside, and possibly waiving fines and fees to limit cash transactions.

Because children may find it hard to maintain physical distancing, it recommends that all children’s programming be suspended until at least July while the state tracks the spread of the virus and assesses the risk of having children gather in close proximity.

Josh Tiffany, director of the Gray Public Library, puts movies back on the shelves Tuesday, when the library partially reopened to the public. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

While libraries such as the one in Gray are not bound by the recommendations, the Maine State Library urges libraries not to offer curbside services until June.

The protocols adopted at the Gray Public Library were largely in line with the draft checklist shared with libraries on Tuesday.

The library is limiting the number of people in the building to 10 at one time, including staff members. A Plexiglass barrier was installed at the circulation desk, patrons and employees are required to wear masks and patrons are asked to limit their visits to less than 20 minutes.

All returned materials, as well as books patrons touch while browsing, will be quarantined for 24 hours, library director Josh Tiffany said. The library also removed all seating for patrons and has made public computers off limits until it receives disposable keyboard protectors.

“It seems the precautions we have in place are definitely going to work,” Tiffany said.

Tiffany said the library will hold off on scheduling any in-person programming until “well in the future,”  and will continue with virtual story hours.

In the first three hours after the Gray library opened Tuesday afternoon, 36 patrons came in, although their visits were spread out and the library never reached its 10-person limit.

“That’s definitely better than an average Tuesday,” Tiffany said.

Hebert, who brought her children to the library, said their experience wasn’t completely unlike their regular visits, although her children did not touch any books they weren’t planning to check out.

Tiffany said patrons who visited Tuesday were mindful about following the new procedures, including setting aside materials they handled to be quarantined and keeping physical distance between themselves and others.

“Everything is working well so far,” he said. “Seeing the people smile as they come through the door was absolutely amazing,”

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