Court Adjustments Provide Shelter from Pandemic Storm
By Csaba Sukosd | August 6, 2020
Every year, Ohio's courts strive for 20/20 vision. In 2020, judges and staff need even stronger perception to visualize what to do with their buildings to combat COVID-19.
"Where do you start? As one judge said, 'We're building the arc and we're already in the water,'" said Cuyahoga County Juvenile Judge Thomas O'Malley.
Since March, Judge O'Malley, also the court's administrative judge has been tasked with overseeing the updated policies and structural modifications required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at one of the state's largest judicial facilities. That includes everything from how people enter the building to repurposing courtrooms with plexiglass and spaced-out seating.
"You can't be any more social distanced in any courtroom anywhere other than the ones we've designed here," said Judge O'Malley.
The court, which holds 32 courtrooms, has plexiglass mounted around the judges' and magistrates' benches, which Judge O'Malley likens to being in the Popemobile. Attached on each side of the bench is a witness stand and bailiff work area, which also are covered with separate partitions. Counsels' tables all offer masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer and the chairs are placed six feet apart. Seating in the gallery, utilized to properly distance jurors, is limited to one person per bench. Cleaning staff also regularly wipe down common surfaces, such as door handles and seats.
Some courts have gone to even greater measures of plexiglass implementation. At Franklin County Common Pleas Court, dividers separate attorneys from clients, and jurors each have their own "bubble."
Space limitations solved by barriers extend beyond the courtroom, as well.
"In our hallway waiting area, we have some benches that back up to each other, so we put a large sheet of plexiglass against those," said Hancock County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan Starn.
While the physical alterations have been necessary, equally as important to public safety is how to handle possible infections.
In Cuyahoga County, the juvenile court has a multifaceted approach to contact tracing. Judges and staff wear colored wristbands that change daily, and need electronic ID entry for all doors. When the public enters the building, each person is met by a greeter who gives visitors a colored card that designates access to one specific floor. All those movements are captured by more than 600 cameras throughout the Juvenile Justice Center, which also includes the county's juvenile detention center.
"Courts have got to come up with some plan to track people through the building," said Judge O'Malley.
It's a lesson the veteran jurist learned the hard way at the beginning of the pandemic. Before the court had a thorough system in place to follow a possible infection, an employee reported they'd been exposed to someone who tested positive. It took several staffers an entire day reviewing security footage to retrace that employee's steps.
With COVID-19 cases increasing in recent weeks throughout the state, especially in major metropolitan areas like Cleveland, there's growing hesitancy by people who have to report to court. To help calm concern, courts have gotten more involved in promoting safety. That includes increased signage offering free masks, shields, and gloves upon entry, or producing public service announcements that guide visitors through the building so they know what to expect when they arrive.
"When folks get here, they'll see, 'They're trying to keep things clean, make sure that I'm safe,'" Judge Starn said.