Rachael Ries received a nice reminder earlier this month about how much local residents have missed their visits to the Washougal Community Library ever since it halted in-person services in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The weather has been nice, so we’ve had the front door open,” Ries, the library’s manager, said. “Patrons would come and stand outside the door, right in the doorway, and say, ‘I just want to smell the books.’”
The library officially reopened April 19, and Ries said it has been fun to see how excited people are to come back inside the small Washougal library.
“The first day was fun because we actually had some people who were here for the first time — they had moved, or they had gotten their library card right before we shut down,” Ries said. “It’s just really nice to hear the voices in the library again and help (people) find books and leave happy.”
Fort Vancouver Regional Library locations throughout Clark, Skamania, Klickitat and Cowlitz counties held “soft opening” events in early April to practice new COVID-19 safety protocols and make sure staff were ready to receive visitors again.
“We are very excited to welcome (patrons) back inside the library,” FVRL executive director Amelia Shelley stated in a news release about the reopenings. “After a year of serving our communities through curbside pickup, books by mail, and virtually, it’s great to open our doors and see patrons in-person.”
The Washougal library is encouraging patrons to schedule their visits — which are limited to 30 minutes — via the FVRL website or by calling, but will also allow walk-in visitors on a first-come, first-served basis.
“It seems like the patrons are figuring (the scheduling) out,” Ries said. “We haven’t had any problems yet. People have been so happy and thankful to be able to come in for any amount of time. They’re very respectful of, ‘Oh yes, we’ll leave so that you can clean and get the next people in.’ It’s very different (for the employees), though. My staff has not been as excited about the timekeeping aspect.”
In late March, the state’s Healthy Washington reopening plan added new rules for libraries in Phase 3 counties, which currently includes Clark County. The new rules state that libraries in Phase 3 that are smaller than 100,000 square feet can allow 50 percent of the building’s occupancy or no more than 400 people. All libraries, regardless of which phase they are in, must require visitors to wear face coverings over their mouths and noses at all times while inside the building. Other rules include maintaining six feet of distance for customers waiting to enter the library; marking high traffic areas with markers showing six feet distance between customers; and reducing or eliminating in-person check-out processes wherever possible.
“We are constrained,” Ries said. “But, so far, it’s been pretty good. We mostly just have one person who wants to come in and use the computer or one person who comes in to use the copier. We’ve seen a lot of that. It gets a little tricker when it’s a larger family, and we tried to make a little bit of an adjustment for that. But really, we’re trying not to go above five at a time, and that’s more on an exception basis. People have been good about understanding.”
Ries said the Fort Vancouver Regional Library district has set safety standards for all of its community libraries.
“Folks still return their books in the outside book drop. There are no inside returns,” Ries said. “We still maintain our six feet of distance. And we’re letting people know that we can’t come and help them at the computer. That’s one of the things that’s really hard. In the past we could just hover over someone’s shoulder and help them. We can’t do that now.”
The Washougal library will continue its curbside pickup service and all of its online offerings, including its popular virtual programs, for the foreseeable future.
Ries said some customers feel comfortable coming inside the library while others would rather avoid public spaces during an ongoing pandemic.
“There’s a whole range of where (people are) at with comfort in coming back into public spaces and being around people, so we need to continue to provide curbside,” Ries said. “Also, especially when our inside numbers are limited, we need to provide curbside for large families so they can get their items. And a lot of the virtual programs are meeting a need and filling a gap for kids that the traditional classrooms are a little harder for. Some folks not yet comfortable coming to in-person things can still participate and see people and be active in the community in the virtual environment. I think for a while, curbside (service) and the virtual programs will stick around.”