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Norfolk libraries and rec centers may stay closed even after pandemic subsides

With the budget constrained by COVID-19 issues, the city must weigh priorities.

NORFOLK, Va. — "The outlook for fiscal 2021 and 2022 is improved, but not enough to allow for expansion of current service levels. From that standpoint, we do not recommend expanding or restoring ongoing service at this point."

That's the message budget director Greg Patrick relayed to the Norfolk City Council. The city, like much of the state, has fared better than expected based on projections made during the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to a recalibrated set of expectations, Norfolk still fell short of pre-pandemic prognostications. 

One area of service seems assured to continue to suffer in the face of this budget shortfall: libraries and recreation centers. 

Norfolk resident Tia Edinger homeschools her son Everett, but says the term is "a bit of a misnomer as we don't spend a lot of time at home. We're usually at the botanical gardens, park or the library."

For the Edingers, homeschooling means spending most of that time outside of the home, with a large chunk of that time at the public library. 

"Enormous and irreplaceable. If we didn't have the library we couldn't home school in the way we do," Edinger said while visiting the "grab 'n go" option available at six of the local libraries, and has helped replace what they've lost.

"We've been able to return a lot of functionality with the grab 'n go option. You can get anything you need including a WiFi hot spot," she said. Despite their adaptability, Edinger has been looking forward to the day libraries re-open in full. 

Unfortunately, that may not come as soon as one would hope based on dropping COVID numbers. 

Patrick's suggestion to maintain current closures comes even if COVID numbers in the area continue to decline, as the financial damage from the pandemic may keep the city from re-opening. 

That notion makes childcare more difficult for moms like Ammie Pascua. 

"It really affects us because so much of our social structure comes from going to public libraries," she said.

Her 4-year-old hasn't yet enrolled in school, and Pascua depended on libraries to fill that gap. 

"They normalize behaviors and socialize them. We miss the structure, we miss the socialization," she said. 

The city manager will give a budget presentation to Norfolk City Council on March 23. Rec centers and libraries will be included in that presentation.