City defends flu policy

By Eric Butler: PNT staff writer

No one’s been asked to leave yet, and those in charge hope the sign will be deterrent enough, but the Portales Public Library has posted a warning for nearly a week to those with indications of having the flu.

The message on the sign at the front door is simple enough: “Persons exhibiting symptoms of the flu will be asked to leave.”

But if the policy isn’t administered properly, according to state American Civil Liberties Union officials, the stance — intended to protect patrons and employees alike — could lead to difficulties.

“Obviously, they need to be cautious in how they exercise that authority. They’re not qualified to make a final determination whether someone has a communicable disease and whether it’s infectious,” said Peter Simonson, executive director for the ACLU of New Mexico. “I think they are running the risk of denying lawful access to the library if they exercise the authority too liberally.”

Denise Burnett, library director, said the signs were put at the entrance last Wednesday and no one with flu-like symptoms has been made to exit the facility. She is also part of a city committee examining how to deal with the H1N1 flu “should it reach epidemic proportions,” Burnett said.

She said the city’s effort, including signs at the front of City Hall asking those with the flu to consider wearing masks, coincides with similar policies instituted by the local public school system and health care providers.

“We all need to make an effort in combating the spread of the disease,” Burnett said. “I have seen, at the computer stations, somebody coughing, hacking and sneezing — and they’re touching the mouse and the keyboard. The other people around them are beginning to feel uncomfortable.”

Also on the sign is an additional warning saying, “Those patrons dropped off will be provided a mask and will be isolated until they are picked up.” Burnett said this proviso is primarily intended toward parents who drop off children at the library for lengthy periods.

Tom Howell, Portales city manager, said the city’s lawyers affirmed the library’s approach to keeping the flu from spreading within its confines — because it concerns public health.

“We do have the right not to allow people in our buildings, even though they’re public buildings,” Howell said.

Simonson said there is potential for a problem.

“Obviously, the library needs to do what it has to in order to protect the public’s welfare,” he said. “There could be some due-process issues if the person isn’t given the chance to show that they don’t have the flu.”

Burnett said anyone on the library staff could make a determination of whether it might be proper to ask someone to leave. The library director also said she personally wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between someone who has the flu or someone who has allergies.

However, Burnett did say those with better expertise at determining such things could be summoned.

“Fortunately, with the fire department across the street, they said, ‘Look, if you have a question, just feel free to contact us, and we’ll come over and see if they’re running a fever,’” Burnett said.