If you’ve tried to check out a book from a public library in recent weeks, there’s a good chance you left empty handed.
Since the start of this year, dozens of neighborhood libraries have shut their doors to the public, as the highly transmissible omicron variant has driven up infections and exposures among staff. But library officials tell Gothamist that bibliophiles may soon see a return to normalcy. As the city’s COVID cases and hospitalizations fall, many of the recently-shuttered branches have begun to reopen, according to representatives of the three public library systems.
Between the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the New York Public Library — which covers Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island — at least 34 branches either closed their doors or slashed their hours this month.
Angela Montefinise, a spokesperson for the New York Public Library, acknowledged the “unfortunate reality” of recent COVID-driven shutdowns, adding that they were “working to minimize service impacts as much as possible while ensuring that our staff is safe and healthy.”
At many locations, signs appeared this month and last announcing the closures “until further notice” — a bleak reminder of the systemwide shutdowns that accompanied the first weeks of the pandemic and dragged on for more than a year.
Outside the Tompkins Square branch of the NYPL on Monday morning, a steady stream of would-be patrons approached the door, only to turn away when they learned it was locked. Branch regulars lamented that it had been that way since Thursday.
“This has been a lifeline, one of the few public resources we have,” said Miriam Elhajli, a musicologist, who said she had several poetry books on hold inside. "They better not close this branch again.”
On Monday, for the first time in weeks, the Queens Public Library reported no closures related to COVID cases or staff shortages, the system’s president, Dennis Walcott, told WNYC/Gothamist.
But several other branches across the five boroughs — including the Riverdale branch in the Bronx; Chatham Square, Tompkins Square, and Bloomingdale in Manhattan — were either closed or operating with limited hours due to COVID.
While libraries require masks, they do not check vaccination status. Instead, they have implemented “rigorous protocols,” Walcott said, while encouraging all staff members to stay home if they feel unwell.
All three systems have also paused in-person events through at least the end of the month. Instead, staff have offered a variety of virtual programs, ranging from citizenship study groups to on-call bedtime stories.
At about 1 p.m. on Monday, the doors of the Tompkins Square library swung open, two hours later than unusual. Roughly a dozen New Yorkers filed inside, many of them lobbing questions at the librarian, who explained that staff illnesses had prevented them from opening in recent days.
Among the first to walk inside was Rico Sanchez, a 65-year-old East Village resident, who said he was using the library’s computers to find a job.
“The public library is one of the greatest things in this country,” Sanchez said. “I only wish it were open more.”