Senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth is usually the epitome of what a good judge should be: prudent, even-handed, thoughtful, and dispassionately examining the evidence and testimony in his courtroom.
Thus, we are surprised, perplexed, and deeply disappointed by his decision this past week to keep in place the mandatory mask mandate for all court buildings and courtrooms in the county – a determination which seems to run contrary to all of those admirable and customary characteristics.
It is now clear that at the time Lambeth issued his decision he wasn’t aware that the Centers for Disease Control last Thursday pronounced an end to mandatory face coverings and social distancing for people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus that has so invaded and disrupted the country over the last year.
Another significant change after Lambeth’s pronouncement of continuing a courthouse mandate: Governor Roy Cooper’s directive from last Friday that also removed most of the restrictions that had heretofore required mask wearing and social distancing across the state.
Instead, the governor pronounced an end to such requirements for those who are vaccinated in most circumstances.
At best, Lambeth’s order, issued last Thursday (May 13), got caught up in an inadvertent time frame snafu, or a “time warp,” as it were.
He apparently issued his instructions before the CDC announcement on the same day; it definitely came out before the governor’s pronouncement a day later and, obviously, without the knowledge that both would significantly reverse the policies of the past year.
Still, the science relied on by the federal government and the state’s governor should now provide sufficient reason for Lambeth to revise his decision.
Also troubling is apparently some of the information that Lambeth says he was given from the local health department which influenced his decision.
In his May 13 letter to “colleagues and friends,” the county’s top judge outlines one of the reasons he’s continuing the mask and social distancing requirements “through at least the end of June.
“The Health Department informs us,” Lambeth wrote, “that the rate of Covid-19 vaccinations in Alamance County needs to increase in the upcoming weeks in order to further improve our local conditions.”
This is one of the most baffling assertions and justifications of all.
According to information maintained by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Alamance County’s vaccination rate is already higher than the state average.
The local health department apparently gave Lambeth the percentage of Alamance County residents who had been vaccinated – 31.5 percent fully vaccinated at the time of his decision, and 34.5 percent partially vaccinated, a week ago when he made his decision.
What they failed to provide was any context for those statistics – i.e., that they’re better than the state’s vaccination percentage rates as a whole.
The figures change daily, but as of Wednesday morning, 29.7 percent of all North Carolina residents had received both vaccination shots.
In Alamance County that figure, according to the same source, was 32.2 percent!
If 29.7 percent is good enough for the governor of the state to make changes in the mask and social distancing mandates, it seems that surely they should be good enough for Alamance County health department officials and judge Lambeth to recognize the efficacy in following the governor’s lead in eliminating these restrictions.
People across the state and nation have endured a year of onerous coronavirus-related restrictions in all areas of life. Thankfully, those days are (mostly) over for those who have been fully vaccinated – i.e., almost one-third of Alamance County residents, for instance.
How ironic that one of the few areas where these restrictions are to be continued are in Alamance County courthouses and courtrooms.
For a full year, we’ve heard time and again admonitions that we all need to heed and follow “the science.” Now that “the science” says it’s safe to come out from behind the mask, we need to do so.
We don’t mind if court personnel or even those with business in the courthouse want to continue wearing a mask. That’s fine. That can be their individual choice. But that stipulation should no longer be required across the board.
Lambeth’s May 13 letter said that these requirements would be re-evaluated in “mid-June” but would otherwise be continued “through at least the end of June.” At least the end of June?
That’s far too long.
He needs to re-evaluate now – based on the CDC guidelines and Governor Cooper’s directive. In response to this newspaper’s questions, he now says he will, in fact, be “revisiting the issue soon.”
There is simply no logical reason that the court system should continue these requirements.