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Mask mandate enacted for Middle Georgia Regional Libraries

A sign announcing a new mask mandate went up Wednesday at the Washington Memorial Library in Macon.
Credit: Liz Fabian

MACON, Ga. — Patrons of Middle Georgia Regional Libraries will have to mask up, including children ages 2 and up.

Tuesday, the midstate library board spent more than 30 minutes of a special called meeting discussing options in light of the current status of COVID-19 cases.

“All counties within MGRL (Middle Georgia Regional Library) are now high levels of transmission rates,” said regional library director Jennifer Lautzenheiser.

Deputy director Mark Bohnstedt shared the latest public health report that shows cases are increasing between ages 1 and 17 and falling in older folks who were once most susceptible before the more contagious Delta variant.

Lautzenheiser’s safety concerns led to a staff survey about masking policy that drew 62 anonymous responses out of 90 workers.

A little more than half – 53% – called for a full mask mandate for all services, while 46% opted for a hybrid mask policy based on age and proximity to others. Three-quarters of the respondents wanted a policy based on safety and 16% thought the plan should be based on adults’ freedom to choose.

In recent months, the library was making masks optional except when working one-on-one with staff where social distancing was not possible.

With the return of children’s programming this month, Lautzenheiser was concerned about bringing together vulnerable youth who are too young to be vaccinated.

“We know that the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children not come into clusters without a mask, and our current policy doesn’t follow that,” Lautzenheiser said, as she proposed the masking options for consideration.

Universal masking, except for those who have medical reasons not to, would be a way to keep the library open with full services at a time when schools are returning to virtual learning.

Some students without internet access rely on the library WiFi for their school work.

During the first wave of the pandemic when communities locked down last year, local libraries closed for 11 weeks and began offering curbside services about halfway through.

At the time, newspapers and magazines were removed from shelves and books were quarantined upon return to the library because initially it was thought the virus spread by physical contact instead of mostly in the air.

While considering the mandate, the board raised concerns about staff enforcement without the backing of a local ordinance.

Once Macon-Bibb County reversed its mask mandate last year, mask compliance at the library dwindled and conflicts escalated between staff and patrons, Lautzenheiser said.

Local municipalities in the system, except Milledgeville, have indicated there will be no mask mandate without a statewide order, she said.

Board member Janice Habersham just lost a friend to the coronavirus, but was concerned the mandatory policy she supports will increase conflict.

“People who do not have symptoms carry the virus and the mask mandate protects yourself and your fellow person and the children. The problem is, we’re going to be with folks who are not going to agree with this and we’ve had conflicts on airplanes and such,” she said. “If I had my druthers, this COVID is wicked… I’d say protect everyone.”

Board member Jodi Palmer was hoping a mandate could push the community through this latest surge.

“We as a library don’t have the option the schools do,” Palmer said. “We just can’t decide to go virtual for two weeks. It seems to me more practical to go ahead and have a mask mandate,” Palmer said.

Board chairwoman Sherri Goss, who admits hating to wear a mask, thought about the liability.

“We don’t want a black mark on the library… that we weren’t tough enough,” Goss said. “We’re not going to make everybody happy, but we don’t want the library to be a super spreader.”

Washington Memorial Library has security, but not all branches in the system do.

Lautzenheiser said patrons who refuse or cannot wear a mask will be urged to use the self-service machines now in place, or arrange for curbside pickup.

Since the staff was divided on the issue, Habersham asked what will happen if employees don’t comply.

“I’m really concerned about the morale and how that’s going to impact the service,” Habersham said.

Staff who do not follow board-set policy will be reprimanded, Lautzenheiser said.

Workers are to maintain a 6-foot distance from patrons and will only be able to refuse one-on-one service with those who don’t comply.

“If someone refuses to wear a mask and you’re not able to socially distance, that would be the only time a staff member can say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you,’” Lautzenheiser said.

The policy will remain in effect at least until the next regional board meeting when members will evaluate the current status of COVID-19 spread and decide whether to lift the mandate.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Lautzenheiser mentioned a recent survey shows 64% of other library systems are now requiring masks.

“We’re not out of line with our peers,” she said.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu or 478-301-2976.

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