Grayson County commissioners Tuesday talked about the plans being formalized to re open the county and district courts amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Wednesday Grayson County’s Administrative Judge Jim Fallon released the plan for that opening which is slated for June 1.

The order enacted says that the Grayson County rules for COVID-19 safety complies with the emergency orders issued by the state Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Allow vulnerable people to use technology to take part in court proceedings

The orders state that all judges will use all reasonable efforts to conduct proceedings remotely where possible and that Fallon will maintain regular communication with the county’s Health Department and County Judge Bill Magers and make modifications to the plan as COVID-19 conditions change within the county.

"The reason these (rules) are so tight," Fallon said in a phone call, is that people can be forced to show up for a court proceeding. He said people might argue that they can go in a grocery store without a face mask and he understands that. But going into the grocery store is a choice one makes whereas being summoned to a court is not. People can face penalties for not obey a summons to court so the court has to make appearing there as safe as they possibly can.

Under the plan judges are to begin setting non-essential in-person proceedings no sooner than June 1. Judges and court staff who can perform the essential functions of their jobs will telecommute when possible. All judges and court staff will be required to self screen before coming to work and before returning to work after lunch each day. If they have a fever greater than 99.6 F or if they have any of the symptoms of COVID-19, or if they had had close contact with anyone who is confirmed to have COVID-19, they are to stay home and will not be allowed in the building.

Once inside the building, those people are required to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and appropriate hygiene.

Judges and court staff are to make note when scheduling items before the court of the participation of anyone who might be classified as a person in a vulnerable population.

The order defines that as, "Individuals who are over age 65 and individuals with serious underlying health conditions,

such as high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and those whose immune systems are compromised such as by chemotherapy for cancer or other conditions requiring such therapy."

Judges, under the order, must include information on all orders, docket notices and other communication notifying people that if they are part of the vulnerable population, they should contact the court to receive accommodations including being allowed to use ZOOM for their court appearance where appropriate.

Social Distancing is the order of things

For those who are not part of the vulnerable population, social distancing will be enforced at the Justice Center and in other courtrooms throughout the county. That means people who are not a part of the same household must maintain six feet of space between themselves and others. No more than two people who are not in the same household can ride on the elevator together and if there are people from the same household in the elevator, no one else can use the elevator with them.

The maximum number of people allowed in each restroom to allow for social distancing has been posted. The maximum number of people allowed in a courtroom has been determined with regard to social distancing guidelines and will be posted. Court staff will enforce those rules. Seating in the audience portion of the courtroom is limited to every other row.

In the portion of the courtroom where those taking part in the proceedings sit, the places for those participants to sit have all been arranged in a way to allow for social distancing.

Hand sanitizing stations have been placed at the entrances of the building, , outside of elevators on each floor, outside of each courtroom, and outside of bathrooms. Additionally, tissues have been placed near the door of the courtroom, at counsel tables, at the witness stand, on the judges’ benches, and in the hallways.

Screenings for the public and other participants

When individuals attempt to enter the court building, Securitas or designated representative of the court office will ask about their health including if they are feeling feverish; have a cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing; or have been in close contact with a person who is confirmed to have COVID-19.

Individuals who indicate "yes" to any of these questions will be refused admittance to the court building.

When individuals attempt to enter the court building, Securitas will use an infrared thermometer to determine the individual’s temperature. Anyone whose temperature equals or exceeds 100.0°F will be refused admittance to the court building. Inmates will also be temperature screened before being transported to the court’s building and those with temperatures outside the safe range will not be transported.

The order says that staff conducting the screenings will be provided with provided personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves.

Face Coverings

The order says that anyone entering the building will have to wear a face covering at all times. People are encouraged to bring their own cloth covering with them, but if they don’t, they will be given a paper one at the door. Attorneys are required to provide their own face covering and one for their clients as well.

In addition, the order states that the all common areas of the court building will be cleaned every two hours and courtrooms will be cleaned between every hearing, between the morning and afternoon sessions and the end of each day with products known to be effective against COVID-19.

Fallon said the rules above apply to any building where a court proceeding is taking place. They will not routinely apply to the Grayson County Courthouse, he said, unless for some reason they have to hold a proceeding in one of the two big courtrooms on the second floor. That, he said, probably won’’t happen because there are a number of entrances to that building and following all of those procedures for people coming and going from four entrances would be complicated. He said everyone hopes that these measures are not needed long term, but there is just really no telling at this point how long they will last.

Jury trials

Jury trials, he said, would be even more problematic with the stated rules because there just isn’t enough room in any of the Grayson County Courtrooms to space jurors six feet apart from each other and all of the other participants of the trial. They couldn’t even safely question the potential jurors in such a situation because there is not place to put 50 or more people in one room and keep them six feet away from each other.

He said for those reasons, for right now, there won’t be any jury trials in the immediate future.

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