Closing the Doors

Knox County Public Library

Closing the Doors

Knox County plans to shutter its libraries tomorrow, after rising concerns from employees.

by jesse fox mayshark • march 19, 2020


The website of the Knox county Public library yesterday, before last night's announcement.

Last night, after a day of rising concern and anxiety among staff members, the Knox County Public Library announced it will close all its branches effective Friday. They are staying open today to give patrons a chance to stock up on books, movies, music and whatever else they might need to pass the time during prolonged isolation.

Knox County is the last of the state's major metropolitan library systems to close.

Employees say the library needs to set an example of protecting public health.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke ordered all the city’s libraries closed last Friday because of concerns about the spreading coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness. Nashville followed suit Monday, announcing that it was closing all of its public library locations until April 6. Memphis announced Tuesday that it was shuttering its libraries effective yesterday.

Some counties surrounding Knox County have taken the same step. As of yesterday, the library systems in Blount and Sevier counties had closed their buildings to public access, as had the Kingston Public Library in Roane County.

Knox County Schools have closed through April 3, and both the county and the City of Knoxville closed their senior centers earlier this week. Yesterday the U.S. Veterans Benefits Administration announced it was closing its regional offices to the public.

Earlier in the day on Wednesday, Rob Link, communications director for Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, said the county was relying on guidance from Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the county Health Department.

Based on local evidence, one isolated case of COVID-19 in Knox County, there is no need to close the libraries at this time,” Link said in an email Wednesday afternoon.

No new cases of the disease were reported in Knox County on Wednesday, as the statewide total of confirmed cases rose to 98 from 73.

The Knox County Public Library had already announced several coronavirus-related restrictions, including waiving overdue fines, removing all toys and games from public areas, and canceling all public programming. It has also provided links to abundant COVID-19 resources on its website.

Safety Concerns

But many library employees across the county said yesterday they believed the system should close to the public. Some said they were electing to use paid leave to stay home to protect their own health and that of their families, including immunocompromised and elderly family members.

The employees noted that closures are already widespread in the private sector, from bars and restaurants to the complete shutdown of West Town Mall announced yesterday.

“I believe that by staying open, we are encouraging people to congregate in public while infectious disease experts are urging people not to do so,” one employee said. “I think many people in our area aren’t taking this crisis as seriously as they should and that by staying open, the library — a trustworthy institution that normally values expertise and accurate information — is encouraging them to keep their false sense of comfort.”

(All employees quoted in this article were granted anonymity to protect them from reprisals. Several reported the library administration had sent messages discouraging employees from posting about the issue on social media.)

Other employees noted that many library patrons are older, in the above-60 demographic shown to be most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“All but one patron this morning has been well over the age of 60,” one employee reported Wednesday.

In a briefing on Monday, Jacobs explained that his inclination was to keep services open and operating as long as possible in anticipation of closures still to come if and when community transmission of the virus arrives in Knox County.

“If you start shutting things down too quickly, this might be a long process, and then you can’t open things up until later,” Jacobs said. “So we can keep that window where some things have to be closed as short as possible and cause minimal disruption in everybody's lives.”

The American Library Association recommended on Tuesday that all public libraries close. The national organization said, “Although closing a library is a local decision, we urge library administrators, local boards, and governments to close library facilities until such time as library workers and our communities are no longer at risk of contracting or spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.”

Link said in an email, “Both Mayor Jacobs and Dr. Buchanan feel that recommendations like the one made by the ALA are broad recommendations that may be appropriate for some communities, it’s not one necessary for Knox County at this time. The situation is being closely monitored and the possible closure of the libraries will be reconsidered if the situation changes.”

It was unclear what changed between that email at 4:04 p.m. and the statement posted to Facebook by the Public Library four hours later. (Somewhat confusingly, the announcement of the closure was added to the existing announcement of restrictions already posted on the library website, dated March 16, making it appear as if the closure had been ordered on Monday.)

(UPDATE, 8 a.m. 3/19/20: The date on the announcement has now been changed to March 19.)

Closed libraries don’t necessarily mean employees are sent home. Many that have locked their doors remain staffed with librarians responding to emails and phone calls, and are even allowing curbside pickup of library materials. Some are using the closure to showcase their online collections of electronic books and videos, and getting creative with programming like storytimes on Instagram.

Right now we should show we care for the community by keeping people safe,” another Knox County library employee said Wednesday. “Patrons respect and trust libraries. If we are open, that sends a message. We are not honoring that trust by being open.” 

Working From Home

Many employees of both Knox County and the City of Knoxville have asked questions in recent days about the governments’ policies on working from home. As of yesterday, neither government was encouraging work-from-home options.

Marcus Kennedy, Knox County’s director of human resources, said in an email Wednesday that it is “business as usual” in county offices. He said employees who are sick should stay home, and the county has said it will offer paid leave to anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and has to be quarantined.

For parents suddenly faced with childcare needs while school is closed, Kennedy said if they use up their accumulated paid leave, “they will be permitted to work from home if their position allows for it.”

The City of Knoxville has closed senior centers. Recreation centers remain open, but gyms are closed and meetings are limited to 10 participants. All City employees are expected to report to work unless they are sick or get permission from their supervisors, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

In an email to employees sent yesterday, Mayor Indya Kincannon suspended all work-related travel through May 10 and outlined social distancing practices.

All city-organized in-person meetings over 10 people should be cancelled, postponed, or held virtually until after March 31,” she wrote. “Smaller meetings should be held in spaces large enough to accommodate a minimum distance of 6 feet between participants. (Emphasis in the original.)

Kincannon’s directive doesn’t apply to City Council meetings or other meetings required by law. She also asked employees attending meetings held by other organizations to avoid shaking hands and stay at least 6 feet away from other attendees.

The city is making preparations in case employees have to work from home. “Information Systems is working hard to develop guidelines and infrastructure necessary to accommodate a large number of employees working from home,” Kincannon wrote.

In his daily COVID-19 bulletin yesterday, Gov. Bill Lee said his administration is expanding the use of work-from-home for state employees.

“Currently,15,000 state employees are working from home through the state’s Alternative Workplace Solutions (AWS) program,” the bulletin said. “The Department of Human Resources is rapidly acquiring resources to place another 8,400 employees on AWS which will bring the total to more than approximately 23,400 employees. Thirty-seven percent of Tennessee’s state employee workforce performs functions that cannot transition to AWS, and we continue to double down on efforts to keep these employees safe at work in the wake of COVID-19.”

CORRECTION: The day Link's email was sent has been corrected in the 7th paragraph from Tuesday to Wednesday.