HILLSBOROUGH, NJ — Hillsborough Township and the Somerset County Library System appear to be at odds over contact tracing when it comes to COVID-19 safety measures. In a news release, township officials claim that the library system refuses to cooperate, in turn, impacting its hours of operation.
The Somerset County Library System of New Jersey presently operates a branch of the library system at 379 South Branch Rd, which is in the Peter J. Biondi building. This makes the branch a tenant of the township's municipal building.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the building was closed to the public, but municipal employees remained working and providing services for residents. On July 6, 2020, the Re-Open Hillsborough Task Force and township officials made the decision to open the building to the public for normal hours of operation, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. until 4:30 pm.
According to township officials, 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 SCLSNJ-HB, was contact tracing. This meant that every person entering the building for any reason would be 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," township officials said in a news release. "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 the planning phase for opening the building to the public, the Reopen Hillsborough Task Force, which included a member from the SCLSNJ-HB, met to discuss necessary safety precautions to be put in place as well as requiring all visitors to sign in to the building, township officials said.
According to township officials, 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," township officials argued.
Township officials said it's through the collaboration of the Office of Emergency Management and the township’s health officer, that the safety precautions were 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,” stated Hillsborough Township Health Officer Siobhan Spano.
“Unfortunately, the library system has offered options that would impact public safety and delay contact tracing,” added Mayor Doug Tomson.
The township's 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.To keep both employees of the building and visitors safe, the sign in policy was instituted, township officials said.
Township officials said they are not expecting library staff to actually 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,” stated Hillsborough Township Health Offier Siobhan Spano.
“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 thecase,” added Mayor Tomson.
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, township officials said. 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 in the following circumstances. (Example: The records are necessary for the proper operation of the library.)
Township officials said that given the current COVID-19 pandemic, the records are not necessary for the proper operation of the library. They also added that 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.
Township officials said 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," the township said.
Last month, township officials said they received a letter from a resident expressing her displeasure with the limited library hours. In Mayor Tomson’s response the details of the township’s opening plan were provided as well as contact information for the county library administrator, Brian Auger.
This resident reportedly then shared Auger’s response with the township, in which he pointed blame on the township for the limited hours, township officials said.
“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, ” Mayor Tomson said.
According to township officials, they claim 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 our 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, township officials said.
“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,” concluded Mayor Tomson.
Somerset County Library System Responds
Patch reached out to Somerset County Library Administrator Brian Auger and the library system's public relations director, Carolann DeMatos, for comment. We were provided with this response:
Somerset County Library System of New Jersey (SCLSNJ) operates 10 branch libraries throughout Somerset County. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in response to Executive Orders from the Governor, SCLSNJ closed all branches to the public, but continued to offer services virtually.
As soon as the Governor permitted libraries to expand services, SCLSNJ began offering curbside pickup, and continued to expand those services as the Governor’s Executive Orders allowed. When Executive Order 173 gave libraries permission to reopen to the public, SCLSNJ began opening its branches to welcome back the public.
At each step in this process, SCLSNJ worked to keep a balance between two vitally important principles – protecting the health and safety of SCLSNJ staff and visitors, and protecting the privacy rights of all library users. SCLSNJ imposes strict standards for health and safety – all staff and visitors are required to wear face masks in the Library and to practice social distancing, as indicated on floor markings and posted reminders; clear plastic barriers have been installed throughout each branch to insult visitors from staff members, and interpersonal contacts as kept to a minimum (no more than 5 minutes whenever possible); high-touch surface areas are wiped down throughout the day and more intense cleaning is done after hours; the number of persons permitted to enter the Library at any time is limited to a maximum of 25% of capacity; and hours of operation have been shortened in each branch.
Unfortunately, at the Hillsborough branch, the hours have been curtailed even further, at the direction of Hillsborough Township. Upon reopening its municipal building to limited public visitation, Hillsborough instituted a requirement that anyone entering had to provide personal contact information, which the Township intends to use for contact tracing in the event of an exposure. Because the Hillsborough branch library occupies a space, which is connected to the municipal building, Hillsborough requires all visitors to the Library to provide the same information. Hillsborough stops collecting this information at 4:30 p.m. on Monday – Friday and not at all on the weekends, but the Library normally would be open to 8 p.m. and for limited hours on both Saturday and Sunday.
Hillsborough imposed its requirement to collect personal information upon the Library during hours when the Township is not collecting it, with the expectation that the Library would turn over the personal information about visitors to the Township upon request. Under state law, libraries are prohibited from disclosing personal information about any library user to anyone outside of the library unless the individual consents or a court issues an order directing the disclosure. SCLSNJ explained to Hillsborough why it could not collect and release the personal information about all visitors in the matter Hillsborough demanded, and the Township said the Library could not be open after 4:30 p.m. and on weekends if it did not collect this information from visitors. SCLSNJ offered several different compromise solutions to try to resolve this issue and extend its hours, but the Township rejected each one.
SCLSNJ has continually sought creative solutions to satisfy Hillsborough’s demands without compromising the privacy rights of all persons who visit the Library. Over the past several days, senior SCLSNJ Administration have been working with SCLSNJ’s attorney, and devised yet another compromise resolution, which SCLSNJ’s attorney is in the process of presenting to Hillsborough’s attorney for consideration. We remain hopeful that Hillsborough will accept this reasonable solution, so that the Library can expand its hours and better service its customers, as it has been trying to do since it reopened in July.
The Hillsborough branch staff, in response to the shortened hours, have been providing Hands Free Holds (contactless pickup) for customers since July 6, 2020 as follows:
Monday-Thursday 4:30-8 p.m.
Friday 4:30-6 p.m.
Saturday 10-6 p.m.