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Patience and Fortitude Needed as Dozens of Libraries Shut Over COVID Staffing Woes

The Bay Ridge public library was temporarily closed on Jan. 10, 2022.
The Bay Ridge public library was temporarily closed on Jan. 10, 2022.
Farah Javed/THE CITY

The book was closed at 25 libraries throughout the city on Monday due to staff shortages, forcing some New Yorkers to stand outside in the cold for WiFi and to download tomes.

The city’s three library systems — New York, Brooklyn and Queens — have scrambled the past two weeks to keep open their 207 branches across the five boroughs as scores of librarians and other support staff call out sick with COVID or related quarantines.

The library system is just one of the many operations forced to pare back as the Omicron variant rages through the city. The cuts include everything from subway service and commercial flights to elective medical procedures and Broadway shows.

“This is an unfortunate reality in our city right now with this highly transmissible variant, but the library is working to minimize service impacts as much as possible while ensuring that our staff is safe and healthy,” said Angela Montefinise, a spokesperson for the New York Public Library, which serves Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx.

Late Notice

The staffing situation has become so dire that library officials have sometimes closed, or pared back hours, at locations with little notice.

On Monday, Bob Fugowski, 80, walked to the Bay Ridge Library on 73rd Street to replenish his reading list.

“I’m waiting for some books,” he said, adding he wasn’t aware the branch was shuttered until he got there. “It was closed Saturday too so I came again today.”

At the same branch, a 69-year-old woman sat bundled up on a bench outside so she could use the WiFi to download an ebook.

Bay Ridge resident Bob Fugowski was disappointed he couldn’t pick up his books at his local branch, Jan. 10. 2022.
Bay Ridge resident Bob Fugowski was disappointed he couldn’t pick up his books at his local branch, Jan. 10. 2022.
Farah Javed/THE CITY

“I had books to pick up and now I can’t,” said Kathy, declining to give her last name.

Library officials from all three branches said the hold on items would be extended for a few days after each branch re-opens.

All late fees have been waived since October.

The three library systems closed their branches in mid-March 2020 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but kept the WiFi on at all buildings. That enabled people, in some cases as far as a block away, to access the internet free of charge.

Government officials have long struggled to find other ways to offer broadband access to an estimated 1.5 million people who can’t afford private plans.

‘We Want to Be Open Safely’

Before fully reopening after the vaccines became available, libraries offered grab-and-go service to patrons who put books on hold or instructed librarians to pick out specific items.

That isn’t an option right now, library officials said, because there’s not enough staff.

Instead, they are urging patrons to access their virtual library, which provides audio and e-books. The virtual services also include story time, résumé writing assistance and homework help. Some of that help is also offered by phone for people without a reliable internet connection.

But many prefer the actual branches and face-to-face support.

“I was going to turn in a book and get books that were on hold,” said Kelly Austin, 28, outside the closed Fort Hamilton Library.

“I get it,” she added. “I wish that it wasn’t closed but I can’t be too fussed about it if it’s due to COVID. It just means I’ll come back another time.”

The surge in coronavirus cases has resulted in a spike of hospitalizations in New York over the past month, with slightly more than 12,000 Monday, the highest since April 28, 2020.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and health experts caution that more than 40% of patients who tested positive had been admitted to hospitals for non-COVID reasons, according to state data published last week. The coronavirus was diagnosed during routine screenings for all new patients.

Lauren Comito, board chair for Urban Librarians Unite, said she understands why some patrons are annoyed with the closures.

“We want to be open, but we want to be open safely,” said Comito, who also serves as the neighborhood library supervisor at the Leonard Branch on Devoe Street in Brooklyn.

“I can see a lot of patrons will be frustrated at having an institution they rely on being not available to them when they want it to be. But I think one of the things that everyone needs to remember with COVID, and with all services from Starbucks to the library, is that there’s people that need to run it.”

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