As of March 17, Johnson County is making every effort to keep the doors of the Johnson County Library open despite the spread of COVID-19.

“We totally understand your concern for your staff and county residents, and we will discuss this issue with the county health officer,” Johnson County Commission chairman Bill Novotny told library director Steve Rzasa during a March 17 county commission meeting. “He has the ultimate authority in a pandemic situation and will make the final call, but, in the meantime, we want to avoid interrupting all the services the library provides for the county.”

Rzasa sent an e-mail to the commissioners on the morning of March 17 requesting the closure. The request followed the closure of 13 of the state’s 23 county library systems due to the spread of COVID-19.

“I think it’s imperative we close the library at this time,” Rzasa told the commissioners during the meeting. “I understand your concern about continuing the services we provide, but I think those concerns are quite secondary to public health.”

Rzasa said he wrote his request after March 16 proved to be one of the highest attendance days at the library in over two months.

“People are not staying home like they should be,” Rzasa said. “We told some of our older patrons yesterday that they shouldn’t be at the library, and they just chuckled. That’s what scares me.”

The coronavirus disproportionately affects senior citizens with mortality rates as high as 15%.

Novotny said that he understood Rzasa’s concerns, but also said that the library provided an important lifeline for many county residents without computers at home.

“I would hate it if someone who had just been laid off because of this crisis could not get the benefits they need because they couldn’t file for unemployment on a library computer,” Novotny said. “And how will they pay their taxes or fill out the census? My primary concern is for the people who rely on the critical internet access the library provides – those people who have no other option.”

Rzasa said that of the 200 visitors to the library on March 16, only eight used the library’s public computers.

The library was closed on March 17 so that Rzasa and the library board could develop a plan for future operations in light of the pandemic situation. It reopened on March 18 with new preventative measures in place.

The library will now be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone who wishes to visit the library must do so by appointment, which can be scheduled by calling 684-5546.

Each visit will be limited to one half hour and no more than five people at one time, Rzasa said. The visitor limit will be waived for single families with more than five members. Those needing to use the library’s computers can be present for a full hour, Rzasa said.

Visitors to the library must use hand sanitizer when arriving, and all library items must be returned in the exterior book drop. Children under the age of 12 will not be permitted unattended.

All library programs are canceled, and the number of computers available for public use have been reduced to enforce social distancing. All toys and games have been removed from the children’s area.

The library is also instituting a curbside pick-up program for individuals who do not wish to come into the library. Call 684-5546 to reserve materials and schedule a pick-up time.

These measures will remain in effect until they are deemed no longer necessary.

In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Rzasa wrote, “Sorry about the frequent alterations, but as the saying goes, we’re rolling with the punches of this unique situation. Short version: We will be open 9 to 5 tomorrow with strict rules about accessing the library.”

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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