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Chicago Shuts Down, but Its Public Libraries Are Open. Librarians Want Them Closed.

Librarians and other employees are protesting by calling in sick and signing a petition, saying the branches should be closed until the coronavirus is under control.

Chicago Public Library’s West Town Branch on Tuesday morning. (Logan Jaffe/ProPublica Illinois)

Update, March 20, 2020: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Friday the closure of all Chicago Public Library branches beginning Saturday, March 21, at 5 p.m., as part of a statewide shelter-in-place order.

In Chicago, bars and restaurants are closed for business. Schools are shut down.

But the city’s library system of about 80 branches is still open, even as librarians are calling in sick in protest and pleading with city officials to close as the novel coronavirus spreads in Chicago and throughout the country. An online petition demanding that libraries close had more than 4,300 signatures by Tuesday morning.

Many of the libraries also are doubling as polling sites Tuesday for Illinois’ primary. Some librarians questioned whether this is why their buildings remain open, though schools that serve as polling sites were open for voters but closed to students on the first day of a statewide school shutdown.

“When I heard restaurants and bars were closing, I thought, there will be an announcement soon, right? I don’t know why the mayor hasn’t stepped up to say for the safety of patrons and city employees, we will close the library for at least a couple weeks,” said an employee at the Harold Washington Library, Chicago’s downtown library that serves as its main facility.

Like other library workers, the employee asked not to be named for fear of losing their job.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered that all schools, restaurants and bars close in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. As of Monday, state health officials reported 105 cases in 15 counties in Illinois. There are 49 known cases in Chicago.

Health officials have urged people to practice social distancing and limit the amount of time spent in the community, and President Donald Trump said people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

City and library officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Library systems in other large cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Boston and Cleveland, have closed, as have many libraries in Chicago’s suburbs.

The national American Library Association executive board on Tuesday morning recommended that all public and academic libraries close.

“It is very difficult for us to put forward this recommendation. Libraries pride themselves on being there during critical times for our communities. We are often the only institutions to remain open during times of crisis. Service and stewardship to our communities are core to our profession,” the board wrote in a statement.

At the Harold Washington library, “there are a lot of people here now, certainly more than 10 at a time,” the employee said. “There are people coughing, touching books. There are so many germs circulating in the air.”

He said public computers do not get wiped down between uses and books are being passed from one patron to another throughout the day. “Last time I spoke with my boss about it, she said, ‘If you feel uncomfortable, feel free to wear gloves.’ But I don’t know if it’s enough.”

In an email to library employees Monday night, Chicago Public Library Commissioner Andrea Telli thanked them for their dedication “during this crisis” and noted that people rely on libraries for “trusted and reliable information.”

“I am proud that CPL plays this role for Chicagoans, especially now,” she wrote. She then urged employees to wash their hands often, try alternatives to handshakes and manage their stress.

In the email, Telli also asked staff members to “practice enhanced hygiene” on public transportation and cautioned that “if the train or bus is too full, wait for the next one.”

Library workers put signs in windows asking patrons not to enter if they feel sick. Employees were told not to bring in extra chairs if the seats are all occupied and to stop circulating laptops. While regular library hours and services continued, all programs, events and meetings were canceled.

In another email to library workers, Telli said the buildings would remain a “safe and welcoming space” for patrons of all ages to study, read, write, check out books, and use electronic databases and Wifi. “We will create displays or develop other ways to show the incredible resource that CPL is in our communities,” Telli wrote in the email.

She welcomed staff to bring their children to work unless they are sick.

At a South Side branch, employees removed half the computers and furniture and all children’s toys, but keyboards were not being cleaned between uses even as the custodial staff was working eight hours a day instead of four.

“There is not the staffing power to do it,” an employee there said. “Just like security guards, you can’t be everywhere at once.”

Some library employees said they haven’t noticed a decline in patrons.

“Yesterday, it turned out to be a regular day,” said a clerk at a library on the city’s Southwest Side, who called in sick today in protest. “[Patrons] still think it’s safe to congregate because we perpetuated that feeling.”

Jose Dominguez sat inside the West Town library corridor Tuesday morning waiting for the branch to open at noon. He said that with a heart condition and poor vision, “there are worse things” than the virus. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said.

A librarian at a branch on the city’s North Side said keeping the libraries open will give patrons a false sense of safety. The librarian said there has been little guidance from supervisors beyond basic efforts about how to keep the libraries clean.

“We feel like having the libraries open sends a message that it’s safe to come to the libraries,” the North Side librarian said. “And we don’t think it is.”

A librarian at a South Side branch said Tuesday morning that she planned to call in sick because she was too afraid to go to work.

“The mayor is forcing libraries to be the social safety net of the city. … She is relying on us to do what the city is supposed to be doing by providing homeless shelters, mental health institutions, being a day care,” she said. “If it is a snow day, polar vortex, teachers strike, I am the first one to say keep the doors open to the library. This is an exception. This is a health care crisis.”

A Southwest Side library clerk said he believes the libraries could remain open if they provided emergency services and temporarily scaled back staffing. But, he said, the library system didn’t plan for that.

“We feel like we’re not being heard,” he said.

Another employee who called out sick Tuesday morning called the situation “a hotbed mess.”

“I’m calling it ground zero,” she said. “We’re going to be the last ones standing until we fall.”


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Portrait of Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen

Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system. Previously, Jodi worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations. Contact Jodi by email and on Twitter.

Portrait of Logan Jaffe

Logan Jaffe

Logan Jaffe is the engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois.

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