Denver libraries were going to reopen within weeks, but rising COVID-19 numbers put those plans on ice

Once the buildings are reopened, users will have to wear masks and will find sneeze guards at check-out and reference desks.

Barbara Methvin made off with two books from the Denver Public Library's mobile bookmobile parked at Clermont Park in University Hills. Oct. 13, 2020.

Barbara Methvin made off with two books from the Denver Public Library's mobile bookmobile parked at Clermont Park in University Hills. Oct. 13, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Seven months after closing to the public, the Denver Public Library was ready to announce the imminent reopening of several branches.

But “the COVID numbers have kind of put a halt to our plans,” library spokeswoman Olivia Gallegos said Tuesday.

A day earlier, word came that Denver’s seven-day coronavirus case average is 127.3, higher than the peak of 126.3 cases on April 29, back when the pandemic was new. And COVID-19 hospitalization rates in Denver have increased since Oct. 3 by more than a third to what Mayor Michael Hancock calls a “concerning” seven-day average of 174.

Gallegos said she had been hoping to announce that seven or eight branches would open within two weeks. Instead, all she could say with certainty on Tuesday is that no branches would be reopening in the next two weeks and no target date for reopening had been set. She said library staff would continue to track data and consult with health officials before deciding on a reopening calendar.

“It’s really dependent on the direction the numbers are going,” she said.

Denver’s 26 public library locations have been closed since March 16. But library patrons have not been completely cut off from books and other materials. The library’s three bookmobiles began rolling again in April and have been dropping off free books for kids at recreation centers and schools and filling book orders placed by older adults at sites such as assisted living centers.

Book drops reopened June 15. In July, librarians began curbside distributions of materials that patrons had placed on hold. Later in July, a laptop loan service was launched outside the Central location on 13th and Broadway. Now, the laptop service is available at 12 libraries. Access to free Wi-Fi is available outside library locations. (All virtual and in-person services will be shuttered Monday for a furlough day, part of steps the city has taken to cope with the pandemic’s economic fallout.)

“The library’s still here,” Gallegos said. “Just in a different way.”

Claire McLane (left) and Alice Latta make use of the Denver Public Library's mobile bookmobile parked at Clermont Park in University Hills. Oct. 13, 2020.

Claire McLane (left) and Alice Latta make use of the Denver Public Library's mobile bookmobile parked at Clermont Park in University Hills. Oct. 13, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Once the buildings are reopened, users will find some changes. Staff at welcome stations outside similar to those at supermarkets will slow entrances if occupancy limits are reached. Sneeze guards have been installed at check-out and reference desks. Furniture has been removed and some areas marked off-limits to encourage social distancing. High-touch surfaces will be wiped down frequently and electrostatic sprayers are being used to decontaminate areas.

Visitors will have to wear face coverings, per Gov. Jared Polis’s statewide mask mandate. They will be able to bring covered drinks into libraries, but not eat there, at least initially. Gallegos said at some point areas may be set aside where people can eat.

Reopenings are to be phased in, with smaller buildings where it is harder to social distance last on the list, Gallegos said. Planners had been looking at ensuring different parts of the city are served in the first wave of openings. They’ll be revisiting the list, now that they have more time.

The Smiley and Byers branches, which are undergoing renovations, and Central, which is slated for renovations, won’t be among the first to reopen, Gallegos said.

The mayor said Monday that the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate has increased over the last few weeks and sits between 4 and 4.5 percent. The World Health Organization has set 5 percent as the recommended rate for reopening. City officials say that if Denver’s cases keep rising, businesses such as hair salons, restaurants and stores could face renewed limits.

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