Demonstrators gathered Saturday afternoon outside the Boston Public Library in Copley Square to offer support to the city’s library workers, who have been confronted three times in recent weeks by people who refuse to wear masks indoors, violating a city policy aimed at protecting residents from COVID-19.
The people opposing masks twice visited the children’s room at the Central Library on Boylston Street and once were in the children’s room at the Hyde Park branch, according to library administrators and a union that represents library workers.
Among those people were at least two of the activists who have been demonstrating against Mayor Michelle Wu’s COVID-19 policies at venues and public events across the city, as well as outside her Roslindale residence.
The three library visits were filmed and streamed live on Facebook by the activists.
In some cases, the people opposing the masks accused library staff of discrimination, said Maty Cropley, president of the Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association, which organized the demonstration.
“The recent incidents at the library over the past few weeks have been extremely challenging, and have rattled staff,” Cropley told the gathering.
The Saturday gathering drew about 100 demonstrators, some of whom carried pink paper hearts and signs that included messages like, “We love our libraries. Please wear a mask.”
Several library workers and two city councilors addressed the gathering.
Michael Colford, director of library services for the city library system, said he was working inside the Central Library in January when the leader of the children’s department called and told him about a group of visitors who refused to wear masks.
Colford said he went to the children’s room on the second floor and addressed the group.
“I spoke to the people who weren’t wearing masks. I explained what our policy was and I explained to them that they couldn’t stay in the building,” he said in an interview. “They pretty much ignored me. So I just stayed in the room during the rest of the time that they were there and let the staff kind of move back.”
The group eventually left without incident, Colford said. “There was no dramatic moment,” he said.
City rules require people to wear masks indoors, including at libraries, which began reopening last June. Library staff regularly remind patrons about the rule, Colford said, but the people he encountered in the children’s room wouldn’t follow the mandate.
“Anyone else who’s in the building without a mask, you mention it to them and they put it on,” Colford said. “The few people who refuse, when we tell them they’re going to have to leave, they do. The difference with this is that they were intentional and they wouldn’t comply when we asked.”
The second incident occurred on Feb. 5 at the Central Library and the third took place five days later at the Hyde Park branch, according to library officials.
Michelle Efendi, a Randolph resident who has demonstrated outside Wu’s home, posted videos of herself with another woman in a room at the Hyde Park branch, telling security officers that they wouldn’t wear masks. Video of the encounter shows children nearby.
On Friday, Efendi told the Globe the state has “accommodation laws” that ban discrimination and described herself as a victim of harassment by library staff who demanded that she wear a mask.
The incident in Hyde Park lasted more than an hour, according to Cropley.
Hope Genty, a children’s librarian, at the Honan-Allston branch, told the crowd that many children that come in are 5 and younger and don’t yet have the option to get vaccinated.
“They rely on us to protect them. They rely on us to make sure that they do not get sick and that is one of the most important things we can do,” she said.
Adults who refuse to wear a mask in the children’s room have the potential to infect the youngest library patrons with COVID-19, she said.
“That just makes my blood boil,” Genty said.
A woman in the crowd yelled, “Here! Here!”
After one of the Central Library incidents, staff closed the children’s room after the people who refused to wear masks departed, according to Genty.
On the same day as the Feb. 5 incident at the Central Library, someone allegedly doused gasoline on a bust of the poet Maya Angelou located on the first floor. A library spokeswoman said the suspect was not believed to be connected to the people who refused to wear masks.
On Saturday, a Boston police spokesman said as of Friday no arrest has been made in the vandalism case. The library spokeswoman said the bust has been cleaned.
During the Saturday demonstration, members of the Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association distributed fliers encouraging people to contact Wu and City Council members and ask them to advocate for security and health measures throughout the library system.
“I’m here to support city workers and to make sure that our libraries are safe for everyone,” said Erin Murphy, an at-large city councilor.
At-large City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said the library system needs the public’s support.
“Our libraries need to be free for all and safe for all,” she said. “What has been happening over this past week has been a coordinated effort to stifle conversations around public health.”
Laura Foner, who was a children’s librarian in Boston for 18 years, decried what she called “shameful incidents of bullying and harassment,” carried out by individuals attempting to make political statements.
“This is not some isolated thing,” Foner said to the gathering. “This is not just a few people and some kids who want to come in and use the library and not wear masks. As we have seen in the world, and the country, and even in our city, there is an organized movement which is aiming to sow discord and disruption.”
She urged the crowd to confront the incidents head-on.
“Ignoring this behavior will not make it go away,” said Foner. “The way to combat this kind of bullying, this kind of selfish, harassing behavior, is not to ignore it, it is to stand up in greater numbers.”