No reopening in sight for Jacksonville’s Downtown library

Main library closed to public since state’s Regeneron treatment site opened in its ground-floor conference center

Jacksonville's main public library has been closed to the public ever since the state's Regeneron COVID-19 treatment site moved into the library's conference center. (Claire Heddles/WJCT News)

Jacksonville’s main library Downtown is closed indefinitely for upgrades as it hosts the city’s state-run COVID antibody treatment clinic.

“There are no immediate plans to reopen,” city spokesperson Nikki Kimbleton said in response to questions about the status of the building’s renovations.

A current library employee told our news partner, WJCT, that staff was told to plan for just a couple of days. It’s now been closed for more than a month, but city officials say there are no updates on installing a separate air conditioning unit to allow the library to reopen with the Regeneron clinic downstairs.

John Carter worked at the library for almost a decade and quit shortly after the Regeneron clinic opened in the library’s ground-floor conference center. He said he was told to plan on leaving the Downtown library for a few days while the air conditioning system was renovated.

“We were told, ‘Grab your stuff. Anything that you’re going to want to get in the next couple of days, bring it with you. Otherwise leave everything at your desk, because it’s not going to be that long,’” Carter said.

Carlo Fassi, chair of the Board of Library Trustees, said the board was given a “heads up” about the library closure but neither the mayor’s office nor state officials consulted the board prior to making the decision.

In response to a public records request, Kimbleton said there is only a verbal agreement with the state to use the library and conference center for free. No formal contract details how long the state’s Department of Health will run its clinic out of the conference center below the library.

“There are no formal documents or contracts for the use of the space,” Kimbleton said in an email. “The library is being provided without a charge so that residents can easily access this treatment.”

The conference center had often been rented out for weddings and other private events for a fee in the thousands of dollars. Within the last year, it was at times used for administering COVID relief programs, but those programs didn’t require the library to shut down. Library employees, who asked to remain anonymous, say after the city announced plans for the antibody treatment clinic, some of their colleagues raised alarms about having COVID-positive patients in the conference center directly below the library without a separate air conditioning system.

Library Assistant Director Chris Boivin said all Downtown library employees were temporarily reassigned to other locations.

But not everyone who uses the library can easily go elsewhere. Former and current library employees told WJCT News they’re most concerned about the unhoused population, which used the Downtown location the most due to its proximity to homeless shelters and other resources.

“That’s the biggest community I think that’s been impacted by this because there is nowhere Downtown for them to go,” former employee John Carter said. “We had a lot of people in there who were maybe just temporarily displaced, trying to get benefits, and now they’re not able to get in there.”

Julia Gordie, the head of social services at the Salvation Army in Jacksonville, said she sees a link between the library’s closure and a spike in people on the streets.

“We have seen more of an influx of people off the streets looking for shelter, food and water than normal and believe the library being closed has contributed to this some,” Gordie said. “Unfortunately, we do not have the computer capacity to help them.”

With the library doors closed, other resources for the community have also taken a hit. People who need Talking Books, a resource for those with disabilities, are being directed to the Daytona Beach library. The other library branches also have limited access to inter-library loans and special collections, employees said.

The library had also stopped holding computer classes for the public in January, partially due to the COVID pandemic, and it’s not clear if they’ll resume, former employee John Carter said.

Since Jacksonville opened the state-run Regeneron clinic below the library, almost 8,000 people have received the treatment. Jacksonville’s monoclonal antibody clinic was the first of 25 clinics Gov. Ron DeSantis touted across the state. The governor has heavily promoted the treatment while simultaneously fighting preventative measures like mask mandates and vaccine requirements. In Duval County, just 61% percent of people over the age of 11 have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, compared to 75% nationwide.

Florida’s widespread access to monoclonal antibody treatments could see troubled waters ahead. A representative from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told The Washington Post the federal government plans to limit the quantity of the treatment each state can receive, after just seven states including Florida used 70% of the country’s supply of the treatment.

DeSantis criticized the Biden administration for potentially limiting Florida’s supply of the treatment at an Alachua County press conference last week.

“We’ve been handed a major curveball here, with a really huge cut from HHS and the Biden administration,” DeSantis said.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, also wrote a letter to the Biden administration, calling on the federal government not to limit Florida’s access to Regeneron.

The city has not announced any changes to the treatment’s availability in Jacksonville.

The Regeneron clinic is open to those who have been exposed to COVID, tested positive for COVID, or are at high risk because of other conditions. The clinic is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You can register here in advance of receiving the treatment or walk in without an appointment.

Here’s information about where to access library resources while the Downtown location remains closed. People with questions for library staff call also call (904) 255-2655.