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COVID-19 puts full reopening of San Antonio libraries on the shelf

Retail stores, restaurants, and other businesses got the clearance to reopen during the coronavirus. So, what's the deal with San Antonio libraries?

SAN ANTONIO — The coronavirus did not stop Annette Ewer from coming to San Antonio's Westfall Library. Thursday morning, she picked out Hotel Silence by Audur Ava Olafsdottir.

"I'm really big into reading and books," Ewer said.

She's into non-fiction, but the global pandemic gives her the space to take on the pages of novels and other books.

"Recently, I checked out an  Andy Warhol perspective, a cookbook on Marfa, Texas, and a book on languages," she said.

Retiree Janet Miller loves books too.

"My husband likes his sports-books, football books," Miller said. "I like gardening. And I love my mushy romances."

Since the coronavirus, their reading comes with regulations at San Antonio Public  Libraries.

Library officials said standard operating procedures changed with COVID-19.

"At this moment,  you can't come in the library and select your own book, and just walk around," Dale McNeill said. "or sit at a table and study."

McNeill is the Assistant Director for Public Service for the San Antonio's Public Libraries. He said the libraries still offer many layers of services, including checking out material digitally, online homework help, having someone read to a child, craftwork, Wifi, playgrounds, and even checking out content physically through a no-contact system.

But opening the city's 30 properties up for walk-in, sit-down, face-to-face use is still on the shelf indefinitely.

"I would hope it's still during this year, but I just don't have any way to say," he said.

The closest library-users can come to being inside the library's walls is through its appointment only computer setup. Currently, nine locations, including Westfall Library, have that option.

According to McNeill, every branch will offer computer use again on November 4.

"When we open back up for the public, we want it to be like it was before the pandemic," he said.

Perusing the aisles of the books remains an essential part of the library experience to users.

"My favorite part is going in and browsing," Ewer said. 

The challenge for city officials is how to make browsing and library usage for its consumer. Some have said if a grocery store can do it, why can't the library?

"If there are ten people in the library---they're probably doing ten different things," McNeill said. Whereas pretty much in the grocery store, people are coming and selecting their groceries and leaving," he said.

McNeill said people frequently sit in the library for extended periods to escape the elements. Plus, he said the library provides items that are checked out and returned---unlike grocery stores.

He said books and materials physically checked out sit in quarantine for at least four days before going back into circulation.

Digital checkouts which have skyrocketed are nearing 1 million, he said.

McNeil said designated libraries sites will still serve as voting precincts for the upcoming election.

Meantime, they continue to focus on a reentry strategy aligned with traditional use and safety.

"You don't have to learn again how to use the library in a whole different way,"' he said.