BOSTON — In the auditorium at Lawrence Public Library, hundreds of books are stacked on tables and sorted by the dates they were returned.

Unlike check-out counters at grocery stores or turnstiles at MBTA stations, books can't be cleaned or disinfected after being handled without risking damage to the binding or paper, so they must be quarantined to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

"Our auditorium used to be filled with people, but now it's filled with books," said Jessica Vilas Novas, the library's director. "Our book-drop is emptied every morning, and we keep them in the auditorium for at least 72 hours before they can be checked out again."

The precautions illustrate the barriers that libraries across the state face as they slowly begin to reopen after months of being closed.

"There isn't enough research right now to tell us how long the virus can live on plastic or paper surfaces, so most libraries are taking the items out of the book return for anywhere between three to seven days," said Nora Blake, president-elect of the Massachusetts Library Association. "It's one of many challenges we're facing."

Under the state's phased plan of reopening from shutdowns triggered by COVID-19, libraries are allowed to operate with curbside service only, and books other materials must be checked out prior to pick up. Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester, TOHP Burnham Library in Essex, and Rockport and Manchester public libraries are all offering curbside pickup.

Public access to library buildings must be limited to the circulation desk. Physical barriers have to be installed in offices to maintain distance between library workers, who should work in staggered shifts to avoid contact. Masks are required for workers and patrons, unless a medical condition prevents them from being worn.

Books that have been returned should be removed from service for 24 hours, under the state guidelines, though most libraries are holding onto them longer.

Rob Favini, head of library advisory and development at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, said libraries are trying to figure out how they can safely reopen under the current state guidelines. He said it's not clear when libraries will fully reopen, and many will face myriad challenges doing so.

"It's not likely we'll flick a switch one day and everyone will be back to doing the same thing," he said. "The reopening process is going to take time."

Beyond the initial reopening phase, it's not clear when or under what conditions the public will be allowed to physically return to browse for books, conduct research or use the computers.

In Lawrence, Novas said the library is approaching reopening cautiously. The facility has two locations in the city that was among the communities in the state hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. The library plans to start curbside pick up beginning Tuesday, June 29, and will allow some public services such as faxing and copying.

"We know those services are important, especially with so many people looking for work," she said. "So we wanted to bring them back."

Still, the library has canceled in-person youth programs and classes for the remainder of the year, and it doesn't plan to rent out its rooms to private groups.

"The pandemic is going to be with us for a while, so regardless of when we reopen to the public we're going to continue to do curbside pickup," she said. "We want to minimize the risk to people in public spaces."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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