Queens turns cautious about handling mail

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As the national media focus on reports of anthrax being sent through the postal service, Queens businesses and residents have begun opening mail with caution while responding with varying degrees of concern to the bioterrorism threat.

“We want to reinforce that the mail is safe and people shouldn’t stop using the mail because of these isolated incidents,” said Tom Gaynor, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Queens.

No anthrax incidents have been reported in Queens, Gaynor said.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani downplayed the anthrax threat at a news conference Monday, when he lightheartedly invited reporters to join him as he opened his own mail later in the day.

“By and large, most people are very calm, and the reality is they should open their mail, they should go about their daily lives,” Giuliani said.

At Borough Hall, incoming mail is being screened by staff members wearing gloves and masks before it is distributed throughout the offices, according to Dan Andrews, the spokesman for Borough President Claire Shulman.

“So we have taken some precautions, as we would advise others to do,” Andrews said.

While news organizations like NBC News and The New York Times have been targeted with the anthrax mailings, Queens newspapers have been advised on handling mail by the New York Press Association, a statewide coalition of 350 community newspapers, including the TimesLedger.

“Essentially we’re telling people not to panic, but just to sort of use more preventative eye-balling and watch your surroundings,” said Michelle Rea, the association’s executive director.

Rea said employees at some newspapers have reacted to the threat by opening all mail with rubber gloves and face masks, a response she believes is overly cautious.

NYPA has issued recommendations to member newspapers based on an FBI advisory, which outlines characteristics of suspicious mail and provides guidelines for how to deal with it.

Concerns about anthrax may have played a role in preventing at least one Bangladeshi newspaper based in Long Island City from being sent to its nationwide distributors this week.

Moinuddin Naser, the joint editor of Bangla Patrika, said an airline refused to accept its papers for shipping Monday afternoon until the newspaper’s offices had been inspected, which he expected would happen later in the day.

“It is a problem for us,” Naser said. “It’s still better to take some sort of precautions.”

The airline did not specify what the office had to be inspected for, although Naser suspected it was anthrax.

At borough post offices, Postal officials have distributed rubber gloves and masks for employees who feel protection is necessary when handling mail, Gaynor said.

One Bayside post office employee said some window clerks were “very nervous” about the anthrax threat and have been wearing the rubber gloves since they were provided Monday.

“I’m concerned, but I don’t know if wearing gloves could really protect us,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity and said she chose not to use the gloves.

Although Gaynor said instructions on how to treat suspicious mail were outlined in daily safety service talks, the Bayside employee said she had not been given any guidelines on how to handle mail in light of the anthrax threat.

“We don’t really know what’s going on other than turning on the television and listening to the news,” the employee said.

Post office customers in Bayside said they were not at all worried about the threat of anthrax sent through the mail.

“I’m a basic simple person,” said one Bayside resident as she was leaving the building. “Why would they want to send it to me?”

Anne Stephens, who also lives in Bayside, said she would “take common sense precautions” to protect herself from being infected.

But she insisted the media have blown the anthrax scare out of proportion by covering it too heavily, which she said encourages the perpetrators to continue “riding on the coattails of terrorism.”

Flushing resident Tina Karagia said she refused to allow the anthrax concerns to interfere with her life.

“I don’t want to panic,” she said. “If it causes a panic, then they have won.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:25 pm, October 10, 2011
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