Public libraries in Massachusetts have been allowed to reopen since March, but it will be late summer before patrons can again browse the shelves of the libraries in Springfield.
The Springfield City Library’s eight neighborhood branches will reopen to the public the first week in August, with the Central Library downtown not opening until after Labor Day.
Springfield Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said after consulting with library officials it was decided to hold off on reopening until after August 1st, when most pandemic-era restrictions in Massachusetts are expected to be removed.
"We felt that was a good and safe time, plus it gives us time to see where the (virus)transmission rates are in the city of Springfield," Caulton-Harris said.
To open library buildings to the public now, the protocols required by the state include capacity limits and contact tracing. Libraries that have chosen to reopen are requiring appointments or letting people come in to browse in half-hour increments.
The Worcester Public Library reopened earlier this week. The Boston Public Library announced it will reopen in June.
Unlike those two cities, Springfield remains at high risk for COVID-19, said Caulton-Harris.
"We look at the data and try to make sure we are adhering to the guidence based on the numbers in our city," Caulton-Harris said.
Since last June, the Springfield library has been offering curbside pickup and more than 250,000 items have been loaned-out, said library director Molly Fogarty.
"That has been an extremely popular service," Fogarty said.
She said the library shifted many of its programs and activities from in-person to online. E-book downloads soared by 40 percent. The library recently purchased several mobile wi-fi hot spots to circulate to people without internet access at home.
The library held its annual summer reading program for children last year and will do it again this summer, said Fogarty.
"We will be starting to do some outdoor programming because some of the protocols have changed for outdoor programming and we can still do social-distancing," Fogarty said.
Librarians continue to field reference questions either by phone, email, or through a new chat feature on the library’s website.
Still, Fogarty said the activity pales compared with the more than 650,000 visits the city library had in 2019.
"What people are losing is the services they get when they come into a library," Fogarty said. "What people want is to be able to come in the doors, browse, use the computers, bring their children in for programs, meet other families. That community connection you just don't get."
The reopening of the Central Library is being delayed until September because the building, which first opened to the public in 1912, has no air conditioning.
Modernizing the mechanical systems in the Central Library is something the city might pay for with federal funds that will be coming from the American Rescue Plan, said Mayor Domenic Sarno.
"HVAC has been on my mind at the Central Library for a number of years," Sarno said. "I know that is something we are going to look into."
Two years ago, the city completed a $4 million improvement project at the Central Library that included replacing the roof and gutter system.