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Libraries start to slowly open to the public

Look to get services to patrons while keeping everyone safe

YOUNGSTOWN — The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County is slowly reopening its services after acting quickly in March to shut them down in the face of what was then a largely unknown virus.

Services are coming back in what officials say is a series of moves to best serve the county during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet Loew, communications / public relations director for the library system, explained that when the decision to close the library system was made, not much information was available about the virus — and there was concern about circulating materials. No one knew how long the virus was active on the various surfaces.

While libraries in Ohio were not shut down by Gov. Mike DeWine, locally the decision was made by board members after research and reviewing best practices and information from Battelle Institute in Columbus, she said.

The decision to close the system was made in part because the governor said “behind the scenes” that the fates of certain places, such as libraries, were to be left up to those local officials, added Amy Fifarek, library executive director.

“In Mahoning County, we were already as a county starting to lead the state in COVID-19 cases,” she said.

“We knew a lot of the population is vulnerable” and includes students, seniors and people with ongoing health issues, Fifarek noted. “We just did not want to take the risk.”

Loew said that Wi-Fi at the libraries remains available to the public.

Internet signals were “boosted” so patrons can use the wi-fi from parking lots, Loew said.

Then, the internet was boosted a second time through the pandemic, making it stronger in some spots in parking lots.

Those places in the lots are marked, noting the strongest signal, Loew said. If anyone notices a sign is missing, they should contact that library.

QUARANTINE

It appears, Loew said, that the virus is inactive within 72 hours on materials.

To ensure that library materials are safe for handling, the board made the decision to quarantine any books that were dropped off for four days, she explained. “Once we had a comfort level that materials needed to be quarantined, we started with curbside” in late May.

She also said that upon returning materials, patrons likely won’t see the items come off their account right away because of the quarantine, but fines also won’t be charged right away.

Because the virus is relatively short-lived on many surfaces and there is a high volume of material that is circulated, Loew said that it was “the most efficient way” to put everything in quarantine rather than have staff interact with things that could potentially have contaminants.

Also phased back into usage is the “special delivery” program (library by mail, among other features) along with curbside pickup.

Library officials also had to take into consideration how each location in the county is used by the public.

In Mahoning County, there are 14 library branches, with the Campbell branch reopening pending the opening of the Community Literacy Workforce and Cultural Center, where the new location will be housed.

Fifarek said that the libraries are well-trafficked, with some locations more reader-focused while others are safe places for kids and teens after school.

“For others, it’s really a program-focused environment where lots of people bring their kids or seniors” for socialization, she added.

afox@tribtoday.com

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