A sign on the door of the Main Library in New Orleans on August 3, 2020, announcing the branch's closure due to a worker testing positive for the coronavirus. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The city of New Orleans last week shut down three branches of the New Orleans Public Library for deep cleaning after an employee who had been working at the branches tested positive for the coronavirus. But the other workers at the branches, who worked alongside the infected employee, haven’t been sent home.

Instead, they’ve been scattered to the library’s other branches.

Five library workers expressed serious concerns about the city’s protocols to The Lens, arguing that the city’s response may have actually increased the chance for further spread and put workers at greater risk. They said the city’s approach and the emphasis on deep cleaning flies in the face of the growing scientific consensus that the virus is transmitted mainly through the air, rather than through touching surfaces. 

“This policy seems designed to actually facilitate the spread of the virus throughout the whole system,” one worker said. “I think it is crazy that the library and city are not sending everyone who works at the closed branches home with paid leave for quarantining and testing, and then requiring a negative test result before they can return to work.”

All five workers asked to remain anonymous, citing a city policy that prohibits employees from publicly disparaging the city.

“It seems to me that the public is being misled,” another library employee told The Lens. “They are being told the three branches are being closed for cleaning, but aren’t being told that the staff at those branches (without first being tested) are being dispersed to other library branches where they will come into contact with employees and patrons at those branches.”

On Friday Morning, Library Executive Director Gabriel Morley emailed staff announcing the temporary closures of the Main Library, Hubbell Library and Nix Library for deep cleaning by the Mosquito, Termite, and Rodent Control Board. According to the library’s website, the Nix Library has been cleaned and will reopen on Monday, while the remaining two branches will be deep cleaned later this week. 

“In the workplace, library staff are required to properly social distance and wear masks, therefore they are not considered to be in close contact with a COVID-19 positive Person,” Morley’s email said. “Quarantine is not required.”

The email notes that workers from affected branches can either go work at a different branch or self-quarantine using personal paid leave days. Morley’s email mirrors library policies detailed in a FAQ sheet dispersed to staff last month. 

“The City is not currently offering any special leave for this situation,” the email said. “Staff will go work at another location or they may take their own leave to self-quarantine.”

Asked if the city was worried about the potential for reassigned employees to spread the virus, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell said, “No — because NOPL has been extremely diligent in enforcing safety precautions across all branches since it has reopened to the public. This includes social distancing and face coverings which is recommended and being adhered to for all public buildings and businesses alike.”

Workers disagreed, however, with the notion that the library’s social distancing measures erase the risk of exposure when an infected employee comes into work. 

“Yes, we have safety measures in place, like the mask mandate and social distance requirements, but these are not fool proof and I have seen so many people (staff and members of the public) not wearing their masks properly (nose hanging out or over the chin) and not always social distancing,” a library employee said in a written statement. 

Workers told The Lens that by the time they received the email, some staff had already been relocated from the closed branches to their branches.

“The staff member from Nix was at our branch before we were notified someone tested positive and that branches were being closed,” one worker said. “The staff members from Main arrived within 15 minutes of the notification, so we had no warning.”

The worker said that at the very least, the transferred employees should have been allowed to go get tested during work hours.

“They weren’t encouraged to go get tested on the clock, which I find really irresponsible of admin, since most of the free testing spots operate while we’re scheduled to work,” they said. “They have been putting the onus for our safety entirely on individual staff, telling us we’re welcome to use our leave but otherwise, we have to report to work at one of the branches. I think they genuinely think they’re doing their due diligence but every single friend or person I’ve explained their behavior to is shocked, including my doctor.”

Library employees doubted the efficacy of deep cleaning measures, with one arguing that the city is failing to “acknowledge the growing scientific consensus that the virus is transmitted in the shared air in indoor spaces.” 

As the pandemic was ramping up in the U.S. in March, there was a big emphasis on contracting the virus by touching contaminated surfaces. Over time, however, the scientific community’s understanding evolved, finding that the main method of infection is through air particles. That has led to an increased focus on masks, air circulation, contact tracing and reduced exposure to indoor areas. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says that “it may be possible” to contract the disease from a contaminated surface, and still urges people to wash their hands regularly and routinely disinfect surfaces.) 

Still, some organizations continue to rely on surface cleaning as a central infection prevention method. And there has been a growing national conversation in recent weeks about infection prevention measures that create the appearance of taking action without doing much to stop the spread of the infection. 

In a recent article for The Nation, writer Derek Thompson argued that deep cleaning often amounts to nothing more than “hygiene theater.” Not only can these measures have limited benefits for combating spread, they can cost a lot during a time that local governments need to count every penny. As an example, he pointed to reports about how New York City’s nightly deep clean of the subway could cost the city $100 million.

“I don’t actually hold the library administration entirely responsible,” one employee told The Lens. “I think the lack of guidance and inconsistency from the city and at the federal level are to blame. Everyone is trying to choose the best of only terrible choices, and that is ultimately because of a failure of leadership at the top. The library can’t provide paid leave because the city hasn’t authorised it.  The city won’t authorize it because they are going broke and have not received enough federal aid.”

Still, the employee said there were steps the library could take to make things safer, steps that library workers have been advocating for since the beginning of the pandemic. Particularly, they said that more workers should be approved to work from home.

“Many job duties could be performed remotely from home, reducing the number of people coming into regular extended contact with each other,” they said. “I don’t know why this has not happened.”

This story was updated to include a post-publication comment from Cantrell spokesperson LaTonya Norton.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...