Your Turn: Mayor says issue with contact tracing sign in sheet is reason for reduced hours at library

Photo courtesy of SCLSNJ

The Somerset County Library System of New Jersey (SCLSNJ) operates a branch of the library system, located at 379 S. Branch Road, which is in the Peter J. Biondi Hillsborough Township Municipal Building.

What is unique is that this branch is a tenant within the township’s municipal building. At the onset of the public health crisis of COVID-19, the building was closed to the public, but municipal employees were remaining working and providing services for our residents. On July 6, the Re-Open Hillsborough Task Force and township officials made the decision to open the building to the public for normal hours of operation, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

One of the many safety measures put in place to protect the public as well as the employees of the building, including those employees of the library, was contact tracing. Every individual who enters the building for any reason is required to sign in at the main entrance. The purpose of this practice is to assist public health officials should there be an exposure that involves any visitors to the building. These practices are in direct response to the ongoing guidance from Somerset County Freeholders regarding contact tracing as well as that of the governor’s directives.

During a public health crisis, such as COVID-19, local decision making regarding matters of public health is under the guidance of the township health officer.

While operating under an Emergency Declaration, it is the Office of Emergency Management director, John Sheridan, in accordance with regulations set forth by the state director of Emergency Management, who shall be empowered to issue and enforce orders relative and necessary to protect the health, safety and resources of the residents of the municipality.

During the planning phase for opening the building to the public, the Reopen Hillsborough Task Force, which included a member from the Hillsborough library, met to discuss necessary safety precautions to be put in place as well as requiring all visitors to sign in to the building. The SCLSNJ’s legal counsel advised against collecting patron information due to confidentiality concerns, resulting in SCLSNJ making the decision not to provide coverage for the sign in desk beyond the operating hours of municipal offices, therefore limiting their hours of operation to coincide with those hours of the building. Patrons’ privacy should be protected. However, there is currently a public health pandemic and cases in New Jersey are on the rise. It is under the governor’s directive to conduct contact tracing. The goal is to keep patrons safe.

It is through the collaboration of the Office of Emergency Management and the township’s health officer, that the safety precautions are implemented at the municipal complex.

“As the pandemic continues to unfold, contact tracing remains to be an important aspect of keeping individuals safe. It is critical that this contact information is gathered at the onset of symptoms, illness or positive test as time is of the essence when this information is needed to be retrieved,” Hillsborough Township Health Officer Siobhan Spano said.

“Unfortunately, the Library System has offered options that would impact public safety and delay contact tracing,” Mayor Doug Tomson said.

Locally, the township and the Hillsborough branch of the library have had and continue to have a tremendously collaborative successful working relationship.

Hillsborough Township’s Health Department is tasked with the extensive contact tracing. In the ongoing effort to keep both employees of the building and visitors safe, the sign in policy was instituted. The health officer is the single point of contact for contact tracing for the municipality as a whole, including agencies that operate within the township such as the Library System.

People are dying from this virus. Contact tracing remains a directive from the governor and the New Jersey Department of Health. It would not be prudent to have library staff conduct contact tracing, as the library staff has not been trained in contact tracing and therefore should not be responsible for gathering and analyzing this sensitive information.

“It is imperative that when contacted individuals provide accurate and complete information to our contact tracers so that we can protect all of our residents. This is a fluid situation and things may change as more information is obtained. Be sure to check your email and return calls when necessary,” Spano said.

“All of this withstanding, the township remains hopeful that the SCLSNJ will make the necessary accommodations to resume pre-pandemic operational hours soon. As I mentioned previously, it is disheartening however, that when individuals contact SCLSNJ to inquire about the hours of the SCLSNJ-HB, they are being told that it is Hillsborough Township who is prohibiting the weekend hours and limiting residents library access, which is totally not the case,” Tomson said.

The township’s attorney and SCLSNJ’s attorney have had various conversations in an attempt to resolve this ongoing issue, but that has yet to happen. According to the township’s attorney, this statute provides that library records which contain the names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of libraries are confidential and shall not be disclosed except when records are necessary for the proper operation of the library.

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the records are not necessary for the proper operation of the library. The library hours are limited because of the library’s refusal to obtain and provide these records which are essential to contact tracing and preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Also, the sign in information is not a library record as defined by the statute. The statute defines a library record as any document or record, however maintained, the primary purpose of which is to provide for control of the circulation or other public use of library materials. The primary purpose of the sign in information is not to provide for the control of the circulation or other public use of library materials. The township requirement to obtain this information is therefore not a violation of the statute. Hillsborough Township’s primary goal is to protect the health of its citizens and avoid a COVID outbreak that has already claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people.

Last month, the township received a letter from a resident expressing her displeasure with the limited hours. In Tomson’s response, the details of the township’s opening plan were provided as well as contact information for the county library administrator, Mr. Brian Auger.

This resident then shared Mr. Auger’s response with the township, in which he pointed blame on the township for the limited hours.

“The response provided to a resident on behalf of the library administrator was disrespectful and not a response conducive of a community partner. Hillsborough Township has always been more than willing to accommodate, assist and foster favorable relations with the SCLSNJ, obviously and especially with the Hillsborough branch,” Tomson said.

Representatives of the SCLSNJ are misrepresenting the safety precautions put in place by Hillsborough Township to protect the municipal employees, the SCLSNJ-HB employees and those visitors to the township building, including the SCLSNJ-HB.

Should the SCLSNJ wish to comply with the contact tracing requirements currently established, Hillsborough Township would welcome opening the main entrance to the building for extended and weekend hours to accommodate SCLSNJ-HB visitation.

“We remain hopeful that a resolution will be reached at some point, but in the meantime, the township felt it necessary to provide the facts of the situation to our residents. And we continue to modify our operations to keep our residents and employees safe and healthy, and while abiding by the directives from Trenton, we would hope and expect that partner agencies would do the same,” Tomson said.

Anyone who receives a call from Hillsborough Township Health Department regarding activities should return their call promptly. Cooperation is extremely important. Anyone who has tested positive or receives a call from someone who has tested positive must contact the Hillsborough Township Health Department immediately at 908-369-5652, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, or send an email during non-business hours to sspano@hillsborough-nj.org.

  • This Your Turn column was submitted by Hillsborough Mayor Doug Tomson.