Community Health

Public libraries across the city are welcoming people to come inside and browse the collections Friday after many months of only being able to pick up books curbside. 

But some staff don’t feel ready to move to this next phase of reopening, like Louisville Free Public Library clerk, Jessi Jones. 

When she got an email on March 11 informing her that LFPL would expand in-person services at all of its branches later in the month, she felt “pretty anxious.”

“I will not be fully vaccinated by that point,” Jones said. “Most of my colleagues will not be fully vaccinated. And we will have been operating under the understanding that when staff were fully vaccinated, that was when we were going to reopen.”

According to LFPL leadership, a little more than a third of the system’s employees are fully vaccinated, about 117 of 293 workers. 

The libraries actually have been open. 

They reopened for curbside pick up early last summer. And in August, people were able to make appointments to use computers. Staff have also been assisting people who need to print or scan items. 

What changed on Friday is that people now have up to 90 minutes to browse the collection and use self-check kiosks, meaning more patrons in the building and more in-person contact for staff.

For Jones, that’s worrisome.

She has several underlying health conditions, and was sick with COVID last fall. 

“It was extremely difficult for me to recover,” she said. “I still have long-term symptoms six months later, and I do not think that I would survive getting it again.”

That’s why she got her first dose of the Moderna two-shot vaccine in mid-March. 

About a day after receiving that shot, she learned via email that LFPL and the city planned to move to this next phase of reopening. 

That email also informed her about a special clinic, held March 12, for library staff to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only a single dose, making it possible for workers to be fully protected just in time for expanding in-person services — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider people fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the booster Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or two weeks after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.  

“I was very frustrated and angry because it was about 18 hours notice, and I had just had my shots,” Jones said. 

A number of other LFPL workers had already gotten their first shots as well, Jones continued.

Another point of frustration for Jones was the timeline in which they learned about letting more people back into branch buildings and when the general public learned. While leadership told WFPL conversations with management began in early March, workers received word the same day a news release went out. 

Another staffer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said the worst part has been the lack of information. They’ve been fielding a lot of calls from patrons every day since news came out about this next reopening phase, asking questions that they didn’t know how to answer.  

“I feel very underprepared or unprepared,” the source said on Wednesday, adding that when people tried to raise questions, they got a “pretty punitive” response.

“I have been given no information to manage patrons expectations,” the staffer said on Wednesday. “So if a patron is wanting to ask a reference question, are we going to be answering reference questions again? We don’t know. And if so, it’s been a year since we’ve done that.”

Details have trickled in last-minute, and staff didn’t receive the final approved plan till Thursday.

There’s also been political pressure to further reopen the libraries.

Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini told WDRB last month he’s hearing from constituents who want to be able to go into their libraries, and he wanted the mayor to reopen them. 

“This is continuing to hold back our city, and this is continuing to disadvantage the most needy citizens in this community,” he said.

LFPL director Lee Burchfield stressed that they have been open. 

He said LFPL leadership worked with Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness and Mayor Greg Fischer’s office to decide on when to expand in-person access, and it had to coincide with a decline in community spread. 

“We knew that when that got down out of that red zone, that would mean that we were able to reopen under the governor’s guidelines,” Burchfield said. 

Neither the mayor nor public health officials provided immediate comment for this story when WFPL reached out. 

Another factor, he said, was Jefferson County Public Schools returning to the classroom, starting with its younger learners on March 17. Middle and high school students will return to in-person learning April 5.

“We wanted to reopen as quickly as possible after people started doing in person classes at JCPS,” Burchfield said. 

But teachers and school staff were eligible to get vaccinated much sooner than library workers. And as WFPL reported last month, there was initially a lack of clarity as to whether library employees would be eligible to get their COVID vaccines during the 1c tier, which included all essential workers.  

“Having staff vaccinated is not one of the requirements under the governor’s guidance for reopening businesses,” Burchfield said. “Thankfully, we were able to provide that opportunity for people to get vaccinated.” 

He said more than 100 workers came to the vaccination clinic on March 12 to get their single-shot COVID vaccine, and medical experts say the first dose of other COVID vaccines does provide some protection several weeks after getting it. 

He said information has been slow to come in because things keep shifting, and he confirmed that they were still finalizing the plan at the time of this interview late Wednesday afternoon.

As for library staff who aren’t fully vaccinated yet and have safety concerns with more people coming into the branches, Burchfield said they will not have alternate work options, such as being remote.

Instead, they’ve added safety measures like reconfiguring furniture to allow for physical distancing, frequent sanitization, access to personal protective equipment and temperature screening for everyone who enters LFPL buildings. 

Study rooms and meeting areas remain closed. 

Burchfield added that the 90-minute time limit to browse the collections in-person is due to capacity limitations. Under state guidance, they can only be 60% full including staff. 

“We’re also not going to be like chalk marking people to keep track of how long they’ve been in there,” he said. “But what we will do is use PSA announcements, and also just staff messaging and signage.” 

The union representing LFPL workers, AFSCME Local 3425, released a statement on Facebook Thursday, saying that employees have “deep concerns regarding the expansion of in-person services, as it is clear that plans were rushed in dangerous ways.”

Staff were offered Q&A sessions with leadership less than an hour after receiving the plan, according to the statement, making it difficult for a number of employees to attend.

“Library Administration insists that we are meeting the minimum requirements from the state of Kentucky. We have not seen evidence that proves this to us, and if we are within the minimum requirements, we want more than the minimum for our communities.”

Library worker Jessi Jones is eager to fully reopen. She just wonders why the haste, why not wait a few more weeks for staff to be fully vaccinated.

“We miss our patrons dearly and have been looking forward to having them in the building again,” Jones said. “But at the same time, we’re not denying them any services right now. The services that we’re providing just look a little bit different for the safety of them and the staff.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.