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Answers to Common Questions

Topics: Closing and Re-Opening Libraries | Cleaning Library Materials and Facilities | Financial Support for Libraries | Library Services | State Library Services | Human Resources

If you have a library-related COVID-19 question or issue, please email: RA-EDEMERGENCYRESPONSE@pa.gov

This page was updated January 11, 2021.

Closing and Re-Opening Libraries

Will there be additional guidance from Office of Commonwealth Libraries regarding closures or when to step back services?

The science and public health conditions surrounding COVID-19 continue to evolve. Guidance will be updated as necessary when new information becomes available. Pennsylvania's Department of Health (DOH) will continue to monitor community transmission rates and other surveillance metrics and may, in close coordination with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, issue guidance as part of a wider public health mitigation strategy.

Library responses to local circumstances should remain focused on and driven by local data and resources, including local restrictions. Library staff and library boards should work together and cooperate with any locally imposed restrictions to determine changes to operational models.

Each library created its own plan for resuming operations at library buildings after the statewide closure in the spring of 2020. These plans should continue to guide decision-making regarding services and operations as the pandemic continues.  If deemed necessary, libraries may reduce or increase services in alignment with local conditions and public health metrics.

The Office of Commonwealth Libraries (OCL) provides a regular update via mailing lists to libraries to share the Level of Transmission in the County data that the Pennsylvania Department of Education uses to make recommendations for school instructional models. Libraries are not schools; they serve a wider audience in a different environment. However, this data can still be useful to understanding the conditions of the area in which the library is located.

Just as your partners and colleagues in local businesses and non-profit organizations make decisions about their services, you and your board are in the best position to evaluate local circumstances; libraries are empowered to make appropriate decisions on whether to keep the facility fully open to the public or whether your services are available in-person, restricted (like curbside delivery), or remote/virtual. As conditions can change rapidly, libraries should keep their library's status current on the Library Status Form and frequently communicate with their patrons via updates on websites, social media, and signage. 

Are face coverings or masks optional?

No. Under the Secretary of Health's Universal Face Coverings Order, masks must be worn in all public spaces and whenever anyone leaves home. Libraries should ensure staff have face coverings and are following these protocols.

How do the state Mitigation, Enforcement, and Immunity Orders, and the Limited-Time Mitigation Orders impact libraries?

The Mitigation, Enforcement, and Immunity Orders combine past orders and lay out clear safety measures and protocols for libraries to follow. Many of these measures have not changed from previous orders and include such guidance as encouraging teleworking, cleaning protocols, physical distancing of at least six feet, and staff mitigation measures like temperature-taking, frequent handwashing, staggered start times, and ensuring adequate spaces for employee breaks. They further include employee measures for contact tracing and ensuring that employees who have symptoms or have been in close contact with a COVID-positive person stay home.  Library building occupancy is limited to 75%. Follow limits to indoor or outdoor in-person library events and programs, or choose to do only virtual programs during this time.  The order also gives limited immunity related to universal face coverings; this measure allows you to enforce the Universal Face Covering order with less concern that a patron might take legal action against you for enforcing health and safety rules.

More guidance on the mitigation orders is available on the Pennsylvania Department of Health's website.

What impact does the Governor's Stay-at-Home Advisory have on libraries?

The Stay-At-Home Advisory issued by the Governor on November 17, 2020 is not a shutdown order. Under the advisory, libraries may continue operating provided they do so safely while following Department of Health guidelines at the building.

For the safety of staff and patrons, libraries are subject to similar restrictions as businesses:

  • Pennsylvanians have been instructed to stay home as much as possible. This may impact the number of people who visit your location. Please consider extending material loan periods and offering grace for fines.
  • Teleworking is required for all who can, but if your work involves physical materials, you may choose to continue to operate curbside services or provide limited access to computers, space, and services in the building as you are safely able.

Cleaning Library Materials and Facilities

What recommendations exist for disinfecting returned library materials?

According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, quarantine of library materials is the most effective known method of disinfection. Suggested quarantine periods for paper-based materials (such as books) range from 24 hours to 120 hours (1 to 5 days). Suggested quarantine periods for non-paper-based library materials (such as plastic-covered books, CDs, DVDs, etc.) range from 72 hours to 216 hours (3 to 9 days).

Additional guidance is available at Safe Handling of Physical Library Materials. The Association for Library Collections and Technical Services website Handling Library Materials and Collections During a Pandemic also has COVID-19 information and resources on handling library collections.

Based on the recent REALM study, is there a best practice recommendation regarding the quarantining of materials?

Libraries are empowered to make their own local decisions about the length and practice of quarantining materials. Libraries are commonly choosing to quarantine materials for anywhere from 24 hours to 7 days depending on local processes. Libraries should continue to choose a quarantine period that is communicated clearly with patrons and meets the risk threshold of patrons and staff. The guidance and data shared above is provided to assist libraries in making local decisions about quarantine periods and frequency of cleaning. 

How should I clean my library facility?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes which includes links to Environmental Protection Agency-approved disinfectants against COVID-19. You may also wish to review Cleaning and Disinfection for Community Facilities if a room or area of your library was occupied by those suspected or with confirmed COVID-19.

Financial Support

What federal programs/funding is available to help my library with pandemic-related costs?

Below are federal programs that may benefit libraries. OCL will update this list as additional programs and funding opportunities become available.

  1. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act enacted in March 2020 provides a variety of financial relief programs that nonprofit employers should review and consider participating, including grants through the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
  2. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires nonprofit organizations that employ fewer than 500 people to provide emergency paid leave for Coronavirus absences and up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave. The costs for these benefits will be covered by tax credits applied to the employer's share of employment taxes.
  3. As part of the CARES Act, the National Endowment for the Humanities CARES grant program is providing emergency relief grants to organizations working in the humanities (such as libraries) that have been affected by the Coronavirus.

How will funds granted by the Institute for Museum and Library Services to Pennsylvania help my library or museum?

Pennsylvania received $1,156,768 in CARES Act funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19, and to expand digital access and technical support.  

To achieve the grant purposes outlined by IMLS, OCL developed a formula that allocates funds to each District Library Center (DLC). The formula sets aside $800,000 for distribution on a per capita basis to each District with $200,000 to be apportioned based on economic distress factors.  

Additional information about the CARES Act funding process for libraries and related FAQs are available on the OCL website.

What other opportunities are available under the CARES Act?

The CARES Act that was signed into law in March 2020 included the following provisions that could benefit libraries:

  1. IMLS Grant funding;
  2. Paycheck Protection Program; 
  3. Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Emergency Grant Program; 
  4. Employee Retention Tax Credit;
  5. Delayed Payment of Payroll Taxes;
  6. Additional benefits for individual and corporate donors. 
How will my library pay for the FFCRA's required employee benefits?

To pay for these leave benefits, employers will receive a credit in the full amount of the qualified sick leave wages and qualified family leave wages, plus allocable qualified health plan expenses and the employer's share of Medicare tax, paid for leave during the period beginning April 1, 2020, and ending December 31, 2020. If the amount of the credit exceeds the employer portion of these federal employment taxes, then the excess will be refunded to the employer.

See the Internal Revenue Services' COVID-19-Related Tax Credits for Required Paid Leave Provided by Small and Midsize Businesses FAQs for more information.

Where can I find more information on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act?

More information for employers and employees on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) is available on the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

The Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations (PANO) also has resources to help nonprofit employers understand the FFCRA.

Will my library lose E-rate funds if our community uses the library's Wi-Fi network while it is closed?

No, your library will not lose its E-rate funding if residents use your Wi-Fi network while the library is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 23, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission announced that schools and libraries closed due to the coronavirus pandemic may open their Wi-Fi networks for public use. As such, schools and libraries may provide connectivity to their communities without fear of losing their E-rate funding. Individual schools and libraries are responsible for establishing their own policies regarding use of their Wi-Fi networks during closures, including hours of use.

Will my library's Public Library Subsidy Funds be in jeopardy?

Eligibility for Public Library Subsidy support for state-aided libraries will not be at risk due to circumstances related to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Waivers for inability to meet state standards for 2020 were granted and will be granted as allowed for 2021.

OCL gave each library flexibility to modify the requirement to file a revised Plan for the Use of State Aid for the period covering 2020 and will provide that flexibility as needed for 2021 plans.

Libraries may modify their budgets and operations to use their Public Library Subsidy funds in the areas that will best support service to the community for the remainder of the calendar year (especially as you consider supporting your most valuable resource - your staff).

Library Services

When can libraries can offer in-person programming such as small group book clubs, story hours for children, or toddler time?

Libraries may offer small in-person programs or use meeting room spaces if capacity limitations can be met and all applicable state and local health and safety precautions are followed. 

Libraries must follow the capacity limitations set forth in the Governor's and Secretary of Health's Mitigation Orders. Libraries hosting an event or program indoors also must comply to the occupancy limits for those spaces established by the National Fire Protection Association.

Please be aware libraries are not required to offer in-person programming. While case counts and community transmission is high, libraries are advised to implement virtual or take-and-make programs to the greatest extent feasible.

Is there a curated list of virtual content for libraries to promote and share? 

Libraries can find virtual content by contacting neighboring libraries and by viewing their websites and social media. Libraries can promote resources from POWER Library such as BookFLIX and TrueFLIX and are encouraged to share resources from Learning at Home, a collaborative program from Pennsylvania PBS and PDE that provides thousands of hours of educational and entertaining videos, activities, and games.

What should my library do about its Federal Depository Library services?

According to guidance posted on the Government Publications Office (GPO) website on March 13, 2020, "Given the state of emergency, libraries may temporarily block the public's physical access to the depository collection. Libraries that do so are strongly encouraged to advertise the changing access restrictions on their website and in signage visible from outside the library. Additionally, libraries should emphasize how the public may get help remotely over the phone, email, or other virtual means." This guidance should be followed unless any other emergency directives from governing officials apply or supersede.

State Library Services

What services are provided by the State Library of Pennsylvania?

The State Library of Pennsylvania is closed for in-person visits. Specifically:

  • Makerspace classes and State Library programs are offered online.
  • Interlibrary loan requests may be filled if online resources are available.
  • Materials in physical format are not currently available. Online resources are available at www.statelibrary.pa.gov.
  • Chat reference service is available at https://powerlibrary.org/chat.

Patrons may contact the State Library of Pennsylvania as follows:

Human Resources

What can library staff do while the library is closed?

All personnel decisions are a local library board's decision (The Public Library Code § 9318 (f).) However, under the Governor's and Secretary of Health's Mitigation Order, telework is to be utilized unless it is not possible to do so. OCL also strongly recommends that virtual and telework operations be implemented, and whenever possible, such operations be considered.

When a library is not open to the public, staff may work on special projects or provide enhanced remote services such as:

  • Increased provision and promotion of E-content (eBooks, eAudios, streaming services, etc.);
  • Online or telephone programming and outreach, especially in support of students and families affected by school remote learning and those with special needs such as people who are living in isolation;
  • Online reference services through chat, email, etc. (Your library may wish to consider using staff time to support Chat with a Librarian services offered through POWER Library.);
  • Making Wi-Fi services available beyond the library's walls;
  • Facilitating community meetings through the library's virtual meeting technology;
  • Posting on social media to engage with the community; or
  • Projects for collection maintenance including catalog record correction or collection analysis and weeding.

Where can libraries find information to answer other questions about COVID-19 in relation to unemployment compensation, labor laws, and health testing information? 

Refer to the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry websites for general information and answers to questions about employer and employee responsibilities: