County libraries maneuver COVID protocols

San Juan County libraries have been grappling with enacting policies to keep staff and patrons safe.

Washington’s governor has mandated both masks and vaccines for state employees, a move that reassures some and angers others. Private businesses may determine their own protocols as long as it doesn’t fly in the face of a governmental mandate. Organizations that serve the community in a public capacity and rely heavily on volunteer staffing — like the county’s libraries — have faced their own set of challenges regarding staff vaccine requirements.

At a recent meeting of the Orcas Island Library Board of Trustees, chair Teresa Patrick echoed a sentiment shared by all the county’s libraries: “The library is a public service funded by taxpayers; we have a responsibility to everyone who uses the library to keep them safe.”

Consequently, what “keeping the public safe” means has been the subject of much discussion. Unlike others around the state, San Juan County libraries are not a part of a larger district library system. Instead, they are independent entities governed by their own board of trustees. Thus, each library is able to develop its own set of safety guidelines, following state mandates as necessary, and adding others as needed.

After months of pandemic closures and limited accessibility, the islands’ libraries have modestly reopened to the general public — a move that has caused more than a bit of soul-searching for directors and administrators as they weigh the personal rights of staff with the responsibility of serving a multi-tiered public.

In the early months of 2021, as islanders began receiving vaccines, the Lopez Island Public Library reviewed its COVID-safe policy. According to the library’s current interim director Claudia Rempel, in April the library’s employees requested the board create a policy requiring that all employees be vaccinated. The board granted the request. At least one employee chose to leave.

By mid-summer, any hope that the pandemic’s spread was lessening was swiftly dashed with the emergence of the Delta variant — a mutation that placed a greater emphasis on one’s vaccination status.

The appearance of the variant even as the island was seeing the number of vaccinated on the rise, resulted in Orcas Library’s Board of Trustees determining their own COVID-safe policy. Masks were already required for staff and volunteers when meeting with the public. Several trustees saw the Delta variant as a sign more policies might be needed and a decision to pursue a vaccine mandate was discussed.

After much discussion, the board determined that vaccinations would be required of all staff and volunteers. The decision resulted in one staff member leaving and, after considering retirement for some time, Library Director Phil Heikkinen retired effective Sept. 30.

“Our goal is to have a fully vaccinated staff,” offered Patrick. “We remain committed to keeping everyone who uses the library safe.”

San Juan Island Library, satisfied with the high percentage of vaccinated San Juan Islanders and their patrons has, according to Rowan Buckton, Assistant Director and Adult Services Manager, mandated only masking.

“We’ve been in touch with other library directors on the islands and feel comfortable with our protocols at this time. Island libraries are unique to the communities we serve and the directors have been navigating this pandemic terrain together. It’s been an interesting and supportive process,” Buckton said.

With policies often comes change, and sometimes unexpected outcomes.

“Initially I had mixed feelings,” Rempel shared. “It’s hard to lose staff. We have an open plan office space and the new policy helped make us feel more comfortable at work. As a community agency, we’re confident we acted in the community’s interest. It gives us all peace of mind.”