Mayor London Breed spoke at the reopening of the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch on April 20; in June, more restrictions will be lifted, including letting patrons visit for as long as they like. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Mayor London Breed spoke at the reopening of the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch on April 20; in June, more restrictions will be lifted, including letting patrons visit for as long as they like. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s libraries are springing back to life

San Francisco’s limited reopening of its Main Library this month is bringing hundreds of patrons through the doors daily. But next month, it plans to reopen all its floors, increase capacity, end a visiting time-limit and even let people read at tables.

And as the Main Library is expanding its reopening, more of the library system’s 27 branches will reopen as well — although it’ll take some months before they all do. The two that have opened this week each saw hundreds of patrons on the first day.

Weeks ago, library officials and Mayor London Breed celebrated the Main Library’s May 3 reopening for in-person services after more than a year, ever since it was shuttered due to COVID-19. “There’s nothing quite like getting to browse the shelves and pick out your next book,” Breed said at the time.

Since reopening, the Main Library has seen an daily average of about 400 to 450 patrons, a far cry from the more than 2,000 pre-pandemic average. But next month more patrons are expected as the Main Library expands its reopening and more people may feel comfortable moving around after the state lifts its COVID-19 tier restrictions on June 15.

Currently, patrons are allowed into the first floor of the Main Library, where they can access the photocopier, use any of the 14 public computers, browse the book collections and ask staff questions. At this point, they are limited to visits of up to an hour.

But starting on June 14, the library plans to reopen all of the Main Library’s floors to patrons, library officials said this week. And there will be no time limit for their visit. They’ll be able to browse collections on all floors, use a yet to be determined number of computers and sit at tables. Seating will be limited, however, with only one person per circular table and two people per rectangular table. Masks and social distancing will still be required.

The Main Library’s current capacity is limited to no more than 55 patrons at any one time. That will increase next month to 750. Current hours of operation will remain in effect; they are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 5:30 p.m.

“We are hoping everybody will come back,” Michelle Jeffers, a spokesperson for the library, told The Examiner Friday. “It’s nice when it’s a busy, buzzing place.”

Jeffers said the current daily use of the reopened libraries are “great numbers.” While there is a capacity limit, she said they’ve never reached a point where they had to hold people up at the door.

“Certainly they don’t match where we were before the pandemic,” Jeffers said of the patron numbers. “I think it is taking people a while to get back to being comfortable just being out in the community in any form or fashion.”

Still, the demand is apparently high for branches to reopen. But it will take some time for that to happen.

The Chinatown Branch opened Monday, when about 300 patrons came through the door, followed by the Mission Bay Branch on Tuesday, which also saw about 300 patrons, according to library officials.

The latest timeline shows Ortega, Richmond and Visitacion Valley branches reopening for in person services on June 21 with the Excelsior branch reopening on June 22.

In July, the Bayview, Bernal Heights, Eureka Valley, Glen Park, Ocean View and Western Addition Branches will all reopen for in-person services.

“We don’t know what exact dates they will open yet,” Jeffers said. “We are aiming for mid-July.”

As for the remaining library branches — except for the Mission Branch which is undergoing a renovation — Jeffers expected them all to reopen for in-person visits by September.

Part of the reason for the timeline is a staffing shortage. Many library employees have been redeployed as disaster service workers to help with The City’s pandemic response.

“Reopening these libraries and launching more locations for in-person services is dependent on staffing capacity,” City Librarian Michael Lambert told the Library Commission this week. “I know all of our residents want their branch to reopen and reopen for in-person services.”

He said that the library has more than 100 staff still deployed as disaster service workers and 139 positions that were left vacant for the past year.

“It’s going to take us some time to transition all of our staff back from disaster service work and fill our vacancies,” he said.

While the libraries closed due to COVID-19, a curbside service, known as SFPL to Go, was launched in August at some locations starting with the Main Library. The library will expand the curbside service in June to include the Bernal Heights, Golden Gate Valley, Ingleside, North Beach, Sunset and Western Addition branches, followed by Noe Valley, Parkside and Presidio branches in July. SFPL to Go will end at the Main Library in mid-June and at the branches when they reopen for in-person services.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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