In normal times, Colette Johnson spent her days at downtown St. Paul’s Central Library answering the reference phone line and helping patrons use the library website. Now, the library associate is spending her shift at a sewing machine, stitching together cloth masks for fellow city workers.
With St. Paul Public Libraries branches closed due to COVID-19, library staffers have been redeployed as garment workers to help with the city’s pandemic response. Johnson is one of about two dozen who have volunteered to sew 2,000 masks for city employees by Wednesday.
It’s a tall order, but Johnson said she and her colleagues are racing to meet it. Last week, she said, she was sewing about five hours a day; now, it’s seven or eight hours. She estimated she’s sewing about 25 masks a day.
“I’m rather proud of everyone here that’s working on this, just to show the multiple skills that the staff has,” Johnson said. “Just the fact that we can be resourceful, and we can also be flexible.”
Like cities across the country, St. Paul is struggling with a shortage of personal protective equipment to help protect first responders against the spread of COVID-19. And after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended wearing cloth face coverings in public spaces, other city staff suddenly needed masks, too.
Because the libraries have sewing machines and other materials available — plus staff members who teach sewing classes — they were well-equipped to help, said Barb Sporlein, the libraries’ deputy director of operations.
“It was sort of a mutual effort between the city leadership and libraries that this is a unique contribution we can make to the overall city response,” she said. “So we thought, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ”
As of Monday morning, 379 masks had been delivered to the city’s Emergency Operations Center at police headquarters, and another 350 were awaiting delivery, Sporlein said.
The masks will go to city workers — from water department employees to lawyers to Human Resources staff — who are not first responders but still interact with the public, or who need to go to City Hall to get work done, said Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher.
“We have the responsibility to make sure that we are protecting their health and safety, as well as preventing the spread while they’re doing that needed work,” she said.
Some library employees are sewing masks from home. Others are using library sewing machines, fabric and other materials. Staff and volunteers have donated supplies, and the city has bought some fabric and elastic, Sporlein said.
In addition to sewing, staffers are also packaging masks and checking them for quality before delivery. They must be made of double-stitched cotton with secure elastic and finished seams, Johnson said.
With members of the public gone from the libraries, she said, helping meet the 2,000-mask goal has been a rewarding way to fill her days.
“Part of why I work in a library is the customer service, and it’s just kind of the nature of our jobs to want to help,” Johnson said. “This just makes us feel like we are back helping our patrons and helping our community.”