Florida courts get OK to lift mask, social-distancing rules

Chief justice directed courts to continue remotely unless in-person hearing is required

Illustration
Illustration (Graham Media Group)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The chief justice of Florida’s Supreme Court says the state’s justice system will soon be allowed to resume in-person court proceedings without masks and social-distancing rules put in place last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The administrative order issued Friday by Chief Justice Charles Canady would also require courts to take steps to resume rules guaranteeing speedy trials, which were suspended amid the logistical challenges the pandemic posed.

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The chief justice, however, directed courts to continue conducting most court proceedings remotely, such as jury selection, unless an in-person hearing is required. Some proceedings, including hearings to determine whether an individual should be involuntarily committed, would have to be conducted in-person unless the requirement is waived by the subject of the hearing.

The order said criminal jury trials will be given priority for in-person hearings, while less-serious cases will continue to be conducted remotely as part of the transition to pre-pandemic operations.

Supreme Court officials said the restrictions are being lifted because of increased vaccination rates and updated guidance from health officials. Chief judges across the state may drop the mask and distancing requirements in courtrooms as soon as June 21 and no later than August 2.

“At this time, effective vaccines for COVID-19 are adequately available in Florida for persons ages 12 and older; almost half of this state’s population has been partially or fully vaccinated; and government-issued health standards and guidance provide that fully vaccinated persons do not need to wear face masks or physically distance in most indoor and outdoor settings unless required by federal, state, or local laws, rules, or regulations,” the administrative order states.

In-person court business was suspended in March of last year as the outbreak spread globally. Florida was an early hotspot.

That prompted the courts to relax rules on speed trial guarantees because of logistical challenges. Judicial hearings had to be conducted by telephone and video conferences.

Canady’s order restores speedy-trial provisions by October 4 for adult defendants taken into custody before March 14 of last year, while those taken into custody later will have those rights restored by Jan. 3.