Maryland's chief judge announced steps in a reopening plan for the state's courts on Friday in response to the coronavirus, with a gradual return to full operations in the next several weeks and months.
Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, the chief judge of the state's highest court, ordered the courts to move from the first phase of reopening now in effect to the second phase on June 5 at 5 p.m. Courts will continue to be closed to the public except for those who are necessary to the matters being heard.
“The details in the reopening plan were carefully and deliberately crafted by workgroups composed of Judiciary leadership, with the health and well-being of court visitors and employees as the driving force, in our work to increase access to the courts,” Barbera said in a news release. “We acknowledge the courts will not be able to immediately return to full operations.”
The judge encouraged the courts to keep using technology for remote proceedings, either through video or telephone.
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“Remote proceedings have been useful and effective in facilitating the courts’ ability to carry out core functions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Judge Laura Ripken, the administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit and Chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges. “The courts will continue to use technology for remote proceedings so that we can expand the types of matters that can be heard before the court.”
Phase three is expected to begin July 20, when the clerks’ offices in both the District Court of Maryland and circuit courts are now scheduled to fully open to the public, if they are able to do so.
Those who seek access to a courthouse or court office location will be required to answer a set of COVID-19 screening questions. People also will be subject to temperature checks, wear a facial covering or mask, and practice social distancing.
If someone is denied access to a court building or court office, the individual will be given information on the option to conduct the hearing remotely, in locations where this service is available, or how to have it rescheduled.
Coronavirus Cases in Maryland by Zipcode
Data for ZIP codes with 7 or fewer cases is suppressed.
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBC Washington
“We have worked tirelessly to make sure the safeguards necessary to protect, as much as reasonably possible, the health of the public, Judiciary personnel, and justice partners were in place before we open to the public,” said District Court of Maryland Chief Judge John Morrissey. “Differences in docket sizes, courtroom and courthouse layouts, and the number of judicial employees will affect the phases for every jurisdiction and court.”
Administrative judges may limit the number of people entering the courthouse or a courtroom.
“The Judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts has been working closely with the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and various vendors throughout the state to secure the tools and equipment necessary to safely reopen to Marylanders,” said State Court Administrator Pamela Harris.
Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan announced additional testing sites for the coronavirus.
Hogan said Friday that three Walmart stores will offer residents self-administered swab tests. Two of the stores are on the Eastern Shore. They include a Walmart Supercenter in Cambridge, Maryland, and another will be in Fruitland, Maryland.
A Walmart Supercenter in Frederick also will offer tests.
The tests will be provided at drive-up locations outside those stores three days a week.
Maryland has had 43,531 positive cases of COVID-19 in the state. As of Friday morning, there have been 2,045 deaths. That's 41 more deaths since Thursday morning. The state has had 176,702 negative tests. There were 1,374 hospitalizations, 36 less than Thursday.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.