The ground floor of the Portland Public Library remained vacant Monday, nearly two months after libraries across Maine closed because of the threat of the coronavirus. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Gray Public Library will reopen to the public Tuesday with somewhat limited services, but it will likely be weeks or months before most libraries in southern Maine follow suit as librarians wait for clear guidance on the safest ways to open their doors to patrons.

“I have no expectations of whether we’ll be watching tumbleweeds or crowds come through the door,” library director Josh Tiffany said. “But I think people very much need the library during this time.”

The Gray library will likely be the first in southern Maine to reopen, nearly two months after libraries across the state closed because of the threat of the coronavirus. With no specific guidance from state officials about how libraries can open safely, other local libraries are still developing plans for accepting book returns, offering curbside pickup, and allowing staff members and patrons back in the buildings.

Library directors across the state have been holding weekly virtual meetings to discuss closures and a slow progression toward reopening. The Maine State Library, the Maine Library Association and others in the industry are working to develop a set of common guidelines that address the unique challenges libraries face.

Unlike other businesses that can do curbside delivery, a library is also bringing materials back into the building as they are returned. Patrons often come from vulnerable populations, including seniors and people experiencing homelessness who come to the library for computer access and other services. Libraries are also community gathering places.

“The challenges aren’t insurmountable, but they’ll just take time,” said Jennifer Alvino, president of the Maine Library Association.

Many librarians are envisioning a staged reopening, with services gradually rolled out as libraries adapt to new safety protocols. For some libraries, that could mean online ordering and curbside pickup. Others may offer limited in-person browsing but keep computers and other services off limits for now.

The Gray library will limit the number of people in the building to 10 and enforce the state requirement that everyone wear a mask. A Plexiglas barrier has been added to the circulation desk, seating has been removed, and public computers have been taken out of service. Books that patrons touch will be taken out of circulation for 72 hours.

Bob Clough clean air ducts Monday at the Portland Public Library. The library’s staff has been discussing how to screen employees and patrons for coronavirus symptoms, how to deal with someone who shows up and seems sick, and how to provide service while keeping physical distance between everyone in the building. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Decisions about when to reopen are left to the library’s governing body – in some cases that’s a town manager or municipal board, in others it’s a board of directors. In Gray, the town manager decided to open the library the same week municipal offices reopened, Tiffany said.

Gray Town Hall reopened on a limited basis Monday. Residents who need to conduct business with town officials are being asked to call from the parking lot and wait for a staff member to come out to greet them.

Gray Town Manager Deborah Cabana could not be reached Monday to talk about the decision to reopen Town Hall and the library.

Lindsay Crete, Gov. Janet Mills’ press secretary, did not respond to queries about whether libraries are allowed to open under Stage 1 of the governor’s executive order.

Some local library directors say it is too soon for them to consider reopening.

“It would be very challenging for any library to open in May given that there has been no sector-specific guidelines for us,” said Jeff Cabral, director of the McArthur Library in Biddeford and a member of the Maine Library Commission. “We’re all in a holding pattern.”

Books that have been disinfected at the Portland Public Library. The Gray Public Library will ask patrons to put any books they touch but don’t check out on a special table so the books can be removed from circulation for 72 hours. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Alvino, who is director of the Windham Public Library, believes most libraries won’t reopen until the second or third phase of the governor’s plan to restart the economy. One of the biggest challenges, she said, will be restrictions on the number of people in buildings.

“Libraries are not places where people go in and out. They’re gathering places and community centers,” she said.

Libraries are also very tactile places, where people pick up books as they peruse shelves and handle other materials during their visits, Alvino said. That close contact with material presents a challenge for library staff as they wait for science on how long the coronavirus lives on surfaces.

“Libraries across the country are grappling with the question of how safe it is to handle materials,” said Kristen Smith, director of development at the Portland Public Library. “We have a backlog of materials waiting to get back into the collection. We’re eager to get it back into the library even before it is open to the public, but only when it is safe.”

Librarians in Maine say they are eagerly awaiting the results of a study by the nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio that is looking at how long strains of the coronavirus stay on 25 different library items. Those results are expected sometime this month and could help guide how libraries handle those materials as they reopen.

“A lot of libraries are waiting on those results to figure out when might be a safe time to start curbside pickup,” Smith said.

The Sam L. Cohen Children’s Library is reflected by a window at the Portland Public Library on Monday. The library’s leaders have been talking daily since March about how they will reopen. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cabral said McArthur Library in Biddeford may be able to open at some point in June with limited service. What that would look like remains up in the air, but he said it could include curbside pickup, a strict limit on the number of visitors to the building and reduced hours. He believes urban libraries, with more services and more patrons, could open much later than smaller rural libraries.

“One of the biggest challenges is to get the library ready,” he said.

Cabral said he and his staff are working on plans to physically separate computers, put up sneeze guards and find supplies like masks and gloves that are in short supply. One staff member starts every day by searching online for hand sanitizer to buy for the library.

Staff at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick has started preparing the building for new social-distancing practices in the future, but is keeping patrons out for now. With more than 15,000 books and audio materials are on loan right now, the library will reopen its book drop on May 11, library director Liz Doucett wrote in a letter to patrons.

Starting next Monday, the library will accept return materials on specific days based on the borrower’s last name. All incoming materials will then be quarantined for 72 hours, Doucett said.

Doucett told patrons the library will begin curbside pickup of reserved materials on June 1. The library will have a phased reopening to patrons that will include a 50-person limit, social distancing, mask wearing and hand sanitizing, but a specific timeline has not been released.

In Portland, library leaders have been talking daily since March about how they’ll reopen. The Portland Public Library furloughed 54 per-diem, part-time and full-time employees in April.

“We are eager to reopen and welcome our patrons back, but we have to weigh the safety of both the patrons and the staff. We need to do it in the safest way possible,” said Kristen Smith, the director of development.

Staff members at the Portland library have been talking about how to screen employees and patrons for coronavirus symptoms, how to deal with someone who shows up and seems sick, and how to provide the same level of service while keeping physical distance between everyone in the building.

Library leadership is actively working on the plan to reopen, but cannot yet say when that will happen, Smith said.

“There are so many unknown factors for how we could do it safely,” she said. “We are trying to balance those concerns with the pent-up need.”

The Walker Memorial Library in Westbrook, in a May 1 letter to patrons, said it hopes to reopen on or around June 1.

“Following Governor Mills’ Executive Order as of April 29th, Walker Memorial Library remains closed. Libraries were not identified as a service sector in phase one of the state’s reopening plan, but a lot of planning is being done,” the library wrote in a Facebook post.

Walker Memorial Library said it is working with the Maine Library Association and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention “to develop guidelines to address safely reopening library services. We don’t fully understand what reopening to the public looks like, but we are more than likely looking at initially modifying or limiting our in-person services.”

Tiffany, the Gray Public Library director, said the library is a destination for people in Gray and nearby towns and is often busy with patrons checking out materials and attending events.

All in-person events are on hold and people who do come into the building will be asked to stay only 15 to 20 minutes instead of lingering, Tiffany said. All patrons will be asked to put any books they touch but don’t check out on a special table so they can be removed from circulation for 72 hours.

Staff members will focus on wiping down frequently touched surfaces and hand sanitizer will be available for everyone. The library will start curbside pickup for people who prefer not to come inside. Computers, which will be moved more than 6 feet apart, are off limits until the library receives a shipment of disposable keyboard covers.

The library’s six staff members were furloughed in April, but returned to work this week. Tiffany said they are all excited but cautious about welcoming their patrons back to the library.

“We have missed our patrons greatly and can’t wait to see them again,” he said. “But people realize this is still a very intense time. We want to do this absolutely right.”

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