Nearly 1,000 people combined visited the Fairfield and Tuckahoe area libraries Wednesday, the day the Henrico County facilities reopened to the public after a monthslong shutdown designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The patrons who streamed through between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. — 227 to Fairfield and 722 to Tuckahoe — were looking for normalcy and found themselves confronted by a new normal: temperature checks, health screening questions and restrictions on admittance.
Still, it was good to be back.
Fairfield Assistant Circulation Supervisor Andre Somerville participated in and led trainings, meetings and webinars while the Henrico branch was closed, but said he missed being able to physically come in to work.
“Not being in the building definitely was hard for us because we were so used to having that daily interaction with customers,” Somerville said. “People have been very grateful that the library is open again. ... To come back and see a smiling face to welcome them back, especially in a crazy time like this, is a really special thing.”
The Chesterfield County Public Library system reopened ahead of Henrico libraries, with three of its bigger locations opening last week.
The open Chesterfield locations — Central, Meadowdale and North Courthouse — are currently bringing in 35% to 40% of the traffic that they ordinarily do.
The Richmond Public Library will reopen all branches on Monday, July 6, with reduced hours and with safety protocols in place.
Last week, Henrico school nurses took shifts outside of the libraries, checking temperatures and asking whether visitors had experienced any symptoms or been in contact with anyone with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.
Facial coverings are mandates, and capacity has been cut by more than half, to 400 people at the Fairfield location and 460 at Tuckahoe.
The county had seen 2,543 confirmed cases of the virus and 141 deaths by week’s end, according to state data.
To encourage social distancing, furniture has been moved to avoid placing seats within 6 feet of each other. In areas where computers are positioned adjacent to each other, every other computer has been disabled.
Dedicated patrons milled through the largely empty Fairfield branch lobby Wednesday morning, perusing the “New Books” section.
Among them was Pat Bruce, a King William County resident on her first visit to Fairfield who said she made the trip because she had run out of books to read at her house.
“The library’s just one of my favorite places,” Bruce said. “It’s a happy place. You can never have too many books, and especially when you have to be at home, you need plenty of books.”
Also located in the quiet lobby was a display cheekily dedicated to apocalyptic literature, ranging from Scott Westerfeld’s 2017 dystopian graphic novel “Spill Zone” to nonfiction books about various historical pandemics. Beyond that, there were resources for job hunting.
The library buildings are sanitized daily, according to Patty Conway, the Henrico system’s community relations coordinator.
Books are not sanitized, but any returned materials are quarantined for three days before they’re returned to the shelf, a standard established by research conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Patrons who pick up but do not check out books are asked to place any books they touched on a special cart, which is also subsequently quarantined.
The Fairfield and Tuckahoe branches were chosen to reopen first because of their locations — Fairfield is closer to the eastern end of the county and Tuckahoe to the west — and because of the buildings’ differences.
While Fairfield opened in October of last year, Tuckahoe has not been remodeled since opening in its present location in 2006. This will allow library personnel to compare the different challenges that arise based on the buildings’ ages.
The branches reopened based on guidance from the county’s transition task force, a group made up of representatives from more than a dozen departments.
The goal of the task force is to ensure consistency between the different government facilities and agencies that are currently reopening, while “following in line with the governor’s phases and ... the recommendations from the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health,” according to Jackson Baynard, Henrico’s chief of emergency management and workplace safety.
Different subgroups were formed to develop guidelines for different elements of reopening, from an IT team to support those who are continuing to telework to a team dedicated to developing signage.
“We didn’t want one agency having one sign and another agency having another sign,” Baynard said. “We wanted to make sure we were very consistent.”
Those signs can be seen throughout the facilities, where they remind visitors to wear face masks and practice social distancing. Seating that would allow visitors to sit less than 6 feet apart is blocked off.
Officials hope the remaining branches will open by the end of July.
The Henrico library system has spent the past several months offering virtual programming, and has been offering curbside pickup since early May.
Curbside pickup was phased in, beginning at the Fairfield and Libbie Mill locations before expanding to three other area libraries, until finally it was being offered at all 10 locations.
In-person library programming is not expected to recommence anytime soon, however. Virtual programming, like storytimes, hosted five times per week by members of the library’s staff over Facebook Live, has been well-attended and well-received.
“Supporting early and emerging literacy is so critical that we knew we needed to provide that even though the doors to our buildings were closed,” Conway said.
The Henrico library system also hosts storytimes for school-age children, book discussion groups for adults and teenagers, and a comic club for fourth- to sixth-graders. Its summer reading program, dubbed the One Henrico Reading Challenge, is also underway.
These digital programs will continue “until we have solidified a plan for in-house programming,” said Conway, adding that there may be a period in which the library is hosting both in-house and virtual programming. “We want to be flexible and responsive to the needs of the public and public health.”
This article has been updated to include information about the Richmond Public Library's reopening plans.