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Courts again set COVID-19 restrictions

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As the COVD-19 pandemic wages on, the local court system is taking a step back to ensure the public’s safety.  

According to a news release, the Polk County court system, part of Missouri’s 30th Judicial Circuit along with Benton, Dallas, Hickory and Webster counties, moved to phase two of its pandemic plan Tuesday, Jan. 19.

After several months under phase two, Polk County had progressed to phase three, which loosened some restrictions, on Friday, Nov. 13. Around two months later, 30th Circuit Presiding Judge Michael O’Brien Hendrickson signed the order for Polk County to step back to the previous phase.

Polk County originally entered phase one of its pandemic plan on Saturday, May 16. The implementation of the recovery plan came after the Missouri Supreme Court suspended in-person court proceedings, aside from emergency exemptions, in March. The high court’s order expired Friday, May 15.    

The decision to return to phase two comes as the Polk County Health Department said the county has had 3,021 total confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 89 of those active, as of Friday, Jan. 22. There were also 499 Polk County residents in quarantine.  

Phase two allows for increased in-person court proceedings over phase one, “including the most extraordinary, pressing, and urgent grand and petit jury proceedings” when those can meet compliance with “social distancing protocols and occupancy rate limitations applicable to the local community,” according to the Supreme Court of Missouri COVID-19 operational directives.

Under phase two, court staff must “keep occupancy rates in large venues and common areas such as courtrooms, jury assembly rooms, jury deliberating rooms, break rooms, and other areas in court facilities to an occupancy rate of 25 or less whenever possible and operate under social distancing protocols,” the directives state.

“Six foot distancing should continue to be observed in all offices, meetings and court proceedings,” per the directives.   

According to the directives, the court should allow “vulnerable litigants, witnesses, victims, attorneys and other individuals involved in court proceedings to participate in the proceedings remotely or postpone their required presence at the court facility.” 

Judges and court staff should also use available technologies, like teleconferencing and video conferencing, to help limit in-person courtroom appearances when possible. 

The plan says face masks are required in all public court areas and during all proceedings “unless good cause is shown to limit the requirement in a particular proceeding, such as for a witness who is testifying.” They’re also required for staff working in open offices and court rooms.

Phase two also says the court should require tape or other means to mark six-foot distances where practical, the directives state, as well as temperature checks and screening questions as people enter court facilities. 

“Continue increased cleaning and disinfection of common areas and consider providing hand sanitizers and wipes,” phase two directives state. 

The directives under phase two include protections for court staff, as well. Non-essential travel by judicial employees for work-related functions is suspended.

“Continue to allow vulnerable judicial employees to work with supervisors to establish reasonable accommodations for those vulnerabilities,” the directives state. 

Under phase two, the courts should allow judicial employees to work in shifts whenever possible and feasible to keep staffing levels to a bare minimum to support increased court activity, the directives state. 

Judicial employees, when in the court facility, should continue to maximize physical distance from others, per phase two directives.  

Court staff should also stay home if they are subject to quarantine or an isolation order, have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine or live with or care for someone who has, or if they are considered high-risk or live with or care for someone who is considered high-risk based on local or state health department criteria, the directives state.  

Judicial employees should not come to work if they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or if they’re seeking a medical diagnosis, or if they live with or care for someone who is sick or seeking a diagnosis, per the directives.    

In phase two, the court will continue to consult with “local judiciary partners and rely on local health officials or departments and CDC guidance to adapt court operating decisions to local health conditions” and reexamine the phases as appropriate, the directives state.  

The court must remain steady in phase two for at least 14 days and reevaluate “gateway criteria” before again moving back to phase three, the directives state. 

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