Union workers at the Boston Public Library plan to hold a unity standout Saturday in response to a series of what they described as hateful and bullying incidents over the city’s mask mandate, the latest illustration of how the polarized debate over COVID-19 restrictions has disrupted school classrooms, government meetings — and now children’s rooms at local libraries.
“It’s just super rattling for people, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Maty Cropley, president of the Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association.
The incidents center on public health measures put in place by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, specifically the requirement that people wear masks in public buildings, including libraries. At least one of the people involved in the library incidents has also been a regular presence at protests outside the mayor’s Roslindale home to oppose a COVID-19 vaccination mandate for city workers.
In the library incidents, unmasked individuals turned unruly when asked by staff in the children’s room to don a face covering, in accordance with city rules. The individuals then began videotaping the confrontation, alleging they are being discriminated against. Police responded, though no one has been arrested as a result of three isolated incidents. Each time, only a few people were involved; one incident involved four people, another saw two people who refused to wear masks.
Cropley said that staff members have reported feeling intimidated and bullied, creating a disorderly atmosphere in a children’s library room, which he called an unsuitable environment for a political protest. He described the incidents as creating an “atmosphere of intimidation and fear that should never exist in the library.” Library officials reported incidents at the Central Library on Boylston Street on Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, as well as an incident at the Hyde Park branch on Feb. 10.
“It’s sustained over a period of time, so it’s very challenging,” Cropley said. “It’s just really challenging for staff in that context, to be targeted like that.”
Staff members plan to hold a “Fill the Library with Love” gathering at noon Saturday outside the Central Library and invited community members to attend. The union called the event a public show of unity and kindness at a time that the pandemic and the polarizing politics of mandates has begun to wear on staff and patrons alike.
“At the heart of our work is community and relationship building,” Cropley said. “This Saturday’s gathering is about bringing people and library staff together to fill the library with love in the face of recent ugly incidents that targeted the children’s room in two locations and the library staff who work there every day. … We need to work to make sure that all are safe in this space.”
Michelle Efendi, one of the people who was involved in at least two of the library incidents, said in an interview with the Globe that she does not believe that she nor her children are required by state law to wear a mask, in spite of Wu’s policy for the library. Cities and towns can implement their own local masking rules, regardless of state policy, and many municipalities outside of Boston have enacted restrictions as well, though several recently retracted those policies. Wu has said herself that the city could lift the vaccine mandates soon, once COVID-related infection and hospitalization numbers in Boston fall below a certain threshold.
But Efendi disregarded those local rules, citing state “accommodation laws” that ban discrimination. She described herself as the victim of harassment by library staff who demanded that she wear a mask, and said she recorded the confrontations as a means of documenting them.
“I was not wearing a sign, I was taking my kids to the library,” said Efendi, a mother of three who lives in Randolph. “Why is that a problem?”
Efendi, who said her husband works in Boston and that she has family in the city, has also participated in the early morning protests outside Wu’s home, though she denied that the incidents in the library children’s room were a political protest.
“The people who have been harassed have been moms and babies, not librarians,” she said. “There’s no agenda … We were using the library.”
The confrontations illustrate how polarizing the debate over COVID-19 related restrictions has become around the country as well as Boston, where Wu implemented what she calls the “B Together” policy that mandates vaccinations for city workers and patrons of certain businesses, such as restaurants. The restrictions have led to a legal battle with municipal unions representing city employees over the mandate that they be vaccinated, as well as protests at Wu’s home and at City Council meetings.
Across the state and beyond, protesters have disrupted community meetings and local health board hearings in similar expressions of opposition.
Arthur Caplan, a medical ethics professor at New York University who has run a research project on the ethics of vaccine mandates, said that opposition over vaccinations are nothing new, but they seemed to have intensified in the COVID-19 pandemic.
That intensity could be based on several factors, he said: the rapid spread of misinformation on social media, which is new to societal discourse; erroneous concerns about the safety of the vaccine, because of how quickly it was developed; the shifting science throughout the pandemic, particularly over the efficacy of the vaccines; and the inconsistencies over mask mandates, from one state to another. All of these factors have helped cloud the messaging behind the importance of the vaccines, he said.
The polarizing tone of the debate has only been exacerbated by the ugly discourse seen on social media, particularly Twitter, in which participants are quick to insult each other.
“The tone of everything is nastier — much more polarizing,” he said.
Lisa Pollack, a spokeswoman for the Boston Public Library, said in interview that, “it is unfortunate when protesters disrupt patrons’ ability to use the library.
“We are very appreciative of our staff, who handle these disruptions professionally,” she said. “Our focus is on providing service to our patrons. And we will continue to do so.”
On the day of one of the incidents at the Central Library, someone also allegedly doused gasoline on a bust of Maya Angelou, though police are investigating that vandalism as a separate incident.
Efendi, one of the protesters, denied that her group had anything to do with the vandalism of the statue. “Every single one of us had video cameras on the entire time,” she said.
She insisted that the confrontations were not meant to be political. During the incident at the Hyde Park library, which she recorded on video, she could be heard telling a police officer that, “We’ve been enjoying ourselves and now we’ve been completely interrupted and our kids have been disturbed by this.”
She added, “Mayor Wu has no authority to implement the B Together mandate.”
A police officer advised Efendi that she could be arrested if the library filed a trespassing complaint, but no complaint was filed.