ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida courtrooms have been holding virtual hearings and court events for the past three months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but beginning Friday some will begin welcoming in-person hearings again, including the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, which includes Orange and Osceola counties.
All but three South Florida counties entered phase two of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reopening plan on Friday.
To discuss what visitors and employees at area courthouses can expect in the coming weeks, Ninth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Donald Myers spoke during a news conference Friday along with Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.
The Ninth Judicial court is following the four-step plan the Florida Supreme Court has in place to restore full court operations. Part one of that began on March 13 when in-person contact was closed to the public and proceedings in-person only happened in emergency or essential situations.
Since courthouses were closed amid the coronavirus pandemic three months ago, proceedings moved online.
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“We’ve had more than 10,000 court events that have occurred over the course of the last two and a half months, as we have worked forward using those remote means (like) video conferencing and telephone conferencing,” Myers said.
Courts are now moving into phase two of reopening, which includes limited in-person contact for certain purposes and requires courts to take protective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Myers said beginning Friday Orange County began a soft opening with a limited number of proceedings and staff. On Monday, full phase two begins.
“We’ve done everything within our abilities to ensure that this is a safe space for the public to return for the purpose of court proceedings,” Myers said. “Court proceedings will be limited initially, and we will define certain types of proceedings that can occur consistent with the Supreme Court’s orders. And we will continue to utilize remote technology whenever possible.”
Here’s what you can expect if you have a reason to be in an Orange County courthouse in the near future.
Health and safety screenings: Every individual that enters the courthouse will undergo a temperature check and answer health screening questions.
“No one with a fever of more than 100.4 degrees or greater, who answers affirmatively to any of the health screening questions, has been allowed to enter the courthouse,” Myers said.
For anyone who fails a health screening: “Court staff will provide to judges or their judicial assistance, the name and contact information of anybody who has been refused admittance to the court, or who has failed that health screening, so that that judge or department can follow up as appropriate with that individual to ensure reset of a court date or accommodation to appear at that court date, through remote means,” Myers said.
Wear a mask: All persons who enter the Orange County Courthouse, including judges, court staff, deputies, security personnel and court users have been required to wear a mask before entering our court facilities, Myers said.
For individuals without a mask, the court has free masks available.
Social distancing and staggered hearing times: Social distancing (six feet between individuals) will be strictly enforced in court, Myers said. Signs have been posted in the buildings to remind people of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“To minimize the number of people in our buildings, hearing times have been staggered and court users will only be allowed to enter the courthouse 30 minutes prior to their hearing times,” Myers said.
Lines marking six feet as well as directional markers will help space people out inside the courthouse.
New Hygiene protocols: All courthouses have implemented increased cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas. All judges and staff have been trained on use of personal protective equipment use and how to address issues of vulnerable populations that are compelled to come to the courthouse for different reasons, according to Myers.
After hours, a deep cleaning of the courthouse will occur.
“Hand Sanitizer is widely available throughout all of the court facilities in the Ninth Circuit including public areas inside and outside courtrooms and near elevators,” Myers said.
Virtual hearings continue: Remote hearings will still happen whenever possible, Myers said.
It’s unclear when Florida courtrooms will resume normal operations.
Myers said, “phases three and four, which lay ahead, have not been fully defined by the Supreme Court except to indicate more access to in-person, in-person court surfaces with relaxed protective measures.”