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Gaining Patron Cooperation on Mask Wearing

by Kimberly Knight, Deputy Director, Alexandria (VA) Public LIbrary & Melanie Lyttle, Head of Public Service, Madision (WI) Public Library on April 30, 2021

As COVID-19 infection rates start to go down and libraries across the country begin to reopen, what is the best way to keep everyone safe? From moving to curbside, installing Plexiglas, more frequent cleaning protocols, and requesting staff and customer wear masks, libraries have enacted a myriad of methods to ensure the safest environment possible in the library. One safety measure that became politicized early on in the pandemic is mask wearing. As such, it has brought about varying levels of pushback from library customers across the country. While mask-wearing is suggested by the Centers for Disease Control, along with state and local health departments, enforcement has been difficult in some libraries while abandoned in others. 

Many states have enacted mask mandates at some point during the pandemic.  However, some never enacted a mandate and at the writing of this piece, more states are dropping or relaxing their requirements every day. While it would be tough to list those here, the AARP has a continually updated list of how each state is handling masks. Some library systems in states without mandates have been able to rely on city, county, or local mandates. Still others may not have any consistent support or guidance.

Even with mask mandates, there are loopholes that customers can point to that provide exceptions that make other customers and staff uncomfortable. For example, in some states, children under 10-years-old, or people with medical conditions that preclude wearing a mask or even a face shield, are allowed to enter libraries without any question from staff. In addition to our efforts to provide trauma-informed care and services to some of our regular customers, enforcing mask requirements have added another level of complexity to what may already be taxing interactions.   

At this juncture, some libraries have been able to avoid the issue as they remain completely closed or only offer curbside options. However, as Dr. Fauci described in late February, we may be wearing masks well into the year 2022. It is inevitable with the rise of vaccinations and the relaxing of some COVID-19 protocols, most libraries will likely be faced with mask enforcement issues as they open or expand access. 

Many state libraries provide guidance for reopening, and ALA provides a variety of resources about reopening, including links to specific state’s guidance documents at http://www.ala.org/advocacy/planning-reopening-resources. Libraries collaborate across county, state, and other jurisdictional lines regularly, so why not share our stories and solutions on the mask issue, as well? Our stories follow.

Madison (Ohio) Public Library — Melanie  A. Lyttle
Madison Public Library in Madison, OH has been open to the public since June 15, 2020 when at that time all employees were required to be masked, but it was only suggested that all patrons wear masks. By July 23, 2020, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine put into place a statewide mask mandate. The mandate declared that everyone going into a building that was not a residence must be masked. Since that time, the library has been fortunate to really only have one person who argued with staff about the mask requirement.  Unfortunately, because that person became belligerent with multiple staff members, the director ended up asking the man to leave for a month as per the library’s behavior policy. Occasionally people forget to wear a mask, and the staff always have paper masks available. With the statewide mask mandate, it allows staff to feel more comfortable asking people to pull up their masks if the masks slide below their nose or chin. Ohio’s mask mandate allows for face shields instead of masks, and there are a handful of patrons who use those. However, for being a rural community of about 21,000 people, the staff knows practically everyone who comes into the library on a regular basis. Greeting patrons by their names allows for gentle reminders about mask wearing instead of more dramatic or confrontational incidents.

There have been those who could not wear masks for medical reasons. They and many other people use the library’s drive-up window which has had more activity since the pandemic began than at any other time in the twenty years since it was added to the building.

Masked Statues at Madison (WI) Public Library. Image courtesy of Madison Public Library. Used with permission.


Alexandria (VA) Library System — Kimberly Knight

Alexandria is a library system located in Northern Virginia only a few miles from the District of Columbia.  Like many public libraries, Alexandria Library had some individuals and whole families push back on our no-mask/no-entry policy when we reopened in Summer 2020.  They approached the guards at the branches maskless. When the individuals were politely offered a mask, they argued that they fell within the medical or religious exception loopholes from the state mandate. Some simply wanted to exercise their liberty to refuse to wear a mask. For each, the guard or staff member on duty politely offered them library services—outside of the building–at curbside, online with e-materials, and through virtual programs.  Some accepted this offer happily or with mild irritation.  However, there were others determined to push the issue.

One family had their preteen write us a sternly worded protest letter asking where we got the authority to enforce such guidance. The library requested assistance from the City Attorney’s office to provide language for a reply, and that still wasn’t acceptable to our 12-year-old customer. Luckily, our City Attorney’s second response with backing from the City Manager’s office convinced our protester. However, a neighboring library reports this family having the police called on library staff for enforcing the library’s mask policy.

In all of our instances, it helped that we had support from our Library Board, City leadership, and a supportive mandate from the Governor of Virginia, Executive Order 63 and 72. However, other jurisdictions in Virginia reported that without support from their leadership, local jurisdiction, or library boards, they could only suggest a mask to mask-less customers. Due to the medical loophole, customers could refuse and still enter the library to browse, use computers, and all other services. Library staff had no power to ask for more information about the medical issue, reducing staff ability to offer the alternative of curbside or online services instead. Despite the Plexiglas, PPE, cleaning protocols, and other retrofitting efforts libraries put in place, having mask-less customers walking around openly caused worry and distress for staff and other customers alike. 

Another even more pervasive issue has been having customers wear their masks correctly during their entire visit. Some would insist on removing their mask the entire time they were drinking their allowed covered beverage. Still, others conveniently let their masks slip off their noses but were mostly polite when approached. However, some gave us an angry earful for the reminders. One man made a show of removing his mask as he was exiting the building knowing that staff could only ask him to leave, which he was already doing. Customers would dutifully wear masks to get past our guard, greeter, and our temperature/mask kiosk but would lose them or let them slide once they were inside. Staff were becoming the mask police! We knew we’d reached a crisis point as the incident reports came fast and furiously and at least one staff tearfully asked to go home after finding so many customers without masks.

We asked our banning committee who were working to standardize banning periods for the entire library system to help draft a policy with more teeth. Now, customers with slipping masks will be reminded and offered a better fitting mask twice but are asked to leave for the day at the third violation. During the ban they may still use curbside, online, and virtual services. With additional offenses, their banning can grow from 1 week, to 1-month, and longer. Those who are found with no masks will be reminded, offered a mask, but asked to leave on the 2nd violation. Similarly, mask-less customers can have their violations strung together to lead to banning from services inside the library and a swift return to curbside, online, and virtual services. Customers who react with belligerence can be banned from all services—in the building, curbside, online, and virtual.  This all requires good communication between staff, managers, guards, and administrators. 

As we approach our second reopening, staff are armed with more supportive tools and better confidence to reinforce the importance of wearing masks inside the building.  In addition to stronger banning guidelines, we’ve added talking points for staff and table tents for study carrels. Gentle reminders are announced throughout the day. During this reopening, no drinking has been reinstated, as well. Therefore, gone are the days they could say they had their masks off to drink an entire beverage. Also, with new guidance from our state health department, all face shields must be accompanied by a mask, as well. 

Through it all, we held out that wearing a mask has always been a choice for the customers. Those who could not or would not wear a mask properly or at all, could avail themselves to our e-collections which had been generously boosted with $100K in CARES funds by our supportive city leadership. Also, staff would happily bring out materials customers selected from our catalog or use our Staff Assisted Materials Selection (SAMs) service via telephone or email. Online database offerings were beefed up with online tutoring, remote access to online genealogy databases, additional foreign language learning, and legal materials. Staff are offering a great variety of virtual programming for adults, children, and even crafters who pick up supplies at curbside. 

A Fun Campaign to Gain Cooperation
Fairfax County Public Library in Virginia shared a positive campaign to encourage customers to remain masked. Deputy Director Christine Jones shared, “after hearing from colleagues about the frequency with which patrons removed their masks, a few of us brainstormed about humorous signs to encourage reluctant wearers to stay masked while in the buildings. We thought about masking famous book covers or famous literary characters and ultimately asked FCPL’s fab designer, Liza Romero-Lecca, to mask any classic art that is beyond copyright with the caption “Smile With Your Eyes.”’ 

Graphic Artist Romero-Lecca selected four diverse iconic art figures to create a clear, fun, and engaging message about wearing masks. Each portrait represents the ‘normality’ of wearing a face mask, with touches of humor like the Mona Lisa holding toilet paper and hand sanitizer and Salvador Dali’s moustache poking through his mask. Liza shared, “I used bold colors in the designs to convey the serious message in an eye-catching way. I was happy to achieve the goal of engaging patrons, encouraging them to stay masked and making them smile with their eyes.” See example below and via their Twitter account.

Image courtesy of Fairfax County (VA) Public Library. Used with permission.

Some libraries having trouble getting support with enforceable guidelines from their governing body, have special days like Mask-less Mondays for customers unwilling or unable to wear a mask. Brave staff are providing services on these mask-less days, falling back on the protections from their own masks, Plexiglas, and other COVID safety protocols. Others have been told they could not demand customers wear mask and to simply help the customers and hope they leave quickly. This is likely leading some libraries to implement express services.

As of this writing several states have “re-opened” and some are also relaxing mask mandates. If you are in a state with a mask mandate, or your library has a masking policy, how can libraries gain the cooperation of patrons in keeping everyone safe? Here are some tips:

  1. What is your library’s masking policy and procedures? Make sure there are clearly written policies and procedures related to this issue.
  2. Be proactive with your mask policy. Also, be repetitive. People are more aware of messages they hear often. Post notices on your websites and social media platforms as well as on any signage at the entrance to your library. Post conspicuous signs in prominent places. Consider having a staff member posted at the door to offer masks to allow to enter. Library staff must wear masks at all times, this sets a positive example.
  3. Get creative like Fairfax County Public Library.  Humorous reminders can be a softer approach to enforcing mask policies.
  4. Offer options. Some libraries offer mask-less customers iPads or laptops to check out and use outside the library to better access our e-collections, databases, and virtual offerings. Often, they partner these offerings with hot-spot lending or expanded WIFI outside their libraries.   
  5. Give masks away for free.
  6. Put masks on statues or other items, like stuffed animals, that are prominently displayed within the library. This is a gentle, positive example of proper mask wearing.
  7. Train staff. Educate employees about state and local mandates as well as the library’s masking policy and plan. Train staff on how to politely request visitors don masks. Offer scripts for staff, if needed.  “The library’s policy is that all visitors wear masks. Can I get one for you? Also train staff on how to politely accommodate medical conditions and that social or political objections are not acceptable. Remind the visitor of your rules and offer alternatives for how to access the library. Support the staff members who have to enforce these policies.

We’d love to hear your library mask story! Send comments to publiclibrariesonline@gmail.com.