The Orange County Public Library system and the Chapel Hill Public Library will remain closed for the coming weeks, offering online services instead due to COVID-19 concerns.
According to the Orange County Public Library's website, late fees for books currently out will not be collected, and books should not be returned until June 15. The Chapel Hill Public Library has also posted on its website that no materials are due, and it will be operating online until further notice.
Libbie Hough, communications manager for the Orange County Public Library system, said the system's two main branches have been closed to the public since March 16 and are waiting for go-ahead from the county government before they reopen.
Hough said people can access the library's virtual resources during the pandemic through temporary library cards, but those without internet access may still struggle to access resources.
"We are very aware unfortunately that not everyone in Orange County has access, or can afford access, to computers,” she said.
Keeley Richards, a Hillsborough resident, said she and her two kids have transitioned from weekly library visits to reading e-books or listening to audiobooks since the library has closed. Still, she says, it's not quite the same.
“We were in there often enough that they would recognize our faces, and say hello and chat, and the kids would have a place to play,” Richards said. “I miss having that sense of community.”
Through the virtual branch, the libraries offer digital versions of many of their programs online, including story time.
But Beth Lundberg, also a Hillsborough resident and a mother of four, said without the Orange County Main Library's in-person story time, her 2-year-old daughter has missed opportunities to be around kids her age.
“It’s definitely going to have a toll on her developmentally,” Lundberg said.
Looking forward, Hough said the Orange County libraries will eventually reopen gradually in three steps. The first step will entail inviting customers to return borrowed materials, with library staff ensuring they're safe by cleaning them.
“We would hate to be in a situation where we turned over a material too quickly and that material was a source of contamination,” Hough said.
Once the library staff feels confident that the materials are safe and decontaminated, Hough said they will begin a recirculation process where materials can be borrowed out again through a curbside pick-up process, allowing at least 72 hours between when a material was returned and when it is loaned out again as a precautionary safety step.
The third step of the tentative library reopening plan would be to have library staff and customers inside the building at a reduced capacity, Hough said.
Todd McGee, community relations director for Orange County, said the changes in library procedure will not be the only adjustments in interaction-based government operations in the coming months.
He said kids programs at the library and summer camps offered by the Orange County Recreation Division will also look different from previous years as the pandemic unfolds.
“Social distancing and wearing masks will be key, and each person will be asked to pay attention to their own health needs and if they show any kind of symptoms relating to COVID, they will be asked to stay home and not come into the library,” McGee said.
Although Hough said she knows the library reopening to the public will be done so safely to protect customers and staff, she said the future of programs and interaction-based activities are among the many unknowns the library system faces.
“Things are definitely going to look very different, but we don’t know exactly how yet,” Hough said.
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