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Despite reversal of face mask requirements by CDC and Governor, local judge maintains ‘status quo’ requirements for local courts

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Requirements in Alamance County courts to continue “through at least the end of June,” top local judge mandates

Though most of North Carolina’s Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, they will continue to remain in place inside Alamance County’s court facilities.

Gov. Roy Cooper has lifted statewide requirements to wear face coverings and to maintain social distancing in most public settings, under a new executive order that took effect at 1:30 p.m. last Friday – two weeks earlier than his previous target of June 1 – and also eliminated statewide limits on attendance at mass gatherings.

North Carolina chief justice Paul Newby issued a similar order earlier this month that discontinued most of the statewide restrictions on court facilities that had been in effect since last spring. Until last Friday, an earlier executive order that Cooper had issued, which had been in effect since May 8, 2020, required face coverings to be worn inside most “public settings,” including court buildings.

Newby’s latest order relaxed a statewide mandate requiring face coverings to be worn at all times inside court buildings. The chief justice’s May 7 order also eliminated statewide six-foot social distancing requirements for court buildings that had been in place since last spring.

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Newby’s latest order only requires masks to be worn in common areas inside court buildings; it also continues several existing provisions that are apparently intended to keep court operations running smoothly, such as authorizing local court officials to hold remote (video-conference) hearings when possible.

Newby’s order, however, gives local court officials the discretion to determine which, if any, of the Covid-19 restrictions should remain in place in the court buildings they oversee.

Face coverings and social distancing requirements will continue to be required for Alamance County court buildings, Alamance County senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth, Jr. announced last week.

Those requirements will continue to remain in place through at least the end of June, Lambeth announced last Thursday. “The health department informs us that the rate of Covid-19 vaccinations in Alamance County needs to increase in the upcoming weeks to further improve our local operations,” Lambeth said, adding that he and his leadership team will reevaluate local conditions, including vaccination rates, in mid-June.

Lambeth, who also serves as the county’s Covid-19 courts coordinator, has also opted to continue the Covid-19 symptom screening process that has been required for entry into Alamance County court buildings. These include: the Alamance County Historic Court House in Court Square in downtown Graham; the district court civil annex building at 126 West Elm Street in Graham; and the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House at 212 West Elm Street; as well as the Paramount Theater in Burlington, where some civil trials have been held since last fall.

The county’s ongoing Covid-19 restrictions mean that the number of people allowed inside courtrooms will continue to be limited to: the defendant; attorneys for the state and the defense and/or paralegals; witnesses; the presiding judge and court reporter; and members of the media that have been granted advance permission to be present for a particular case, in keeping with the existing administrative orders that Lambeth and chief district court judge Brad Allen, Sr. previously issued.

Cooper and N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen have urged businesses to post signs “reminding guests to social distance and wear a face covering” if they aren’t fully vaccinated.

During a press conference on Friday, Cooper and Cohen pointed to the state’s vaccination rates and new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control , indicating that face covering and social distancing requirements can be safely lifted for fully vaccinated people, as their rationale for lifting the state’s Covid-19 restrictions two weeks before their original June 1 target date.

 

Percentage of county residents fully vaccinated is higher than statewide rate
As of Tuesday, 32.2 percent of Alamance County residents had been fully vaccinated, compared to 29.6 percent of North Carolinians who had been vaccinated, according to the latest data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

As of Tuesday morning, 19,031 confirmed cases of Covid-19 had been reported in Alamance County since March 2020, according to the county’s health department.

The number of new cases confirmed daily appears to have peaked at 256 on Saturday, January 9 of this year; by Sunday, May 18, the number of new cases confirmed daily had declined to seven, according to the Alamance County health department’s online coronavirus dashboard.

However, Covid-19 testing has also declined, from its peak of 6,971 tests administered during the week ending October 31 of last year to 2,171 tests administered, according to the latest data that Alamance County has posted the data on its coronavirus dashboard, which was current for the week ending May 8.

The order that Cooper issued on Friday eliminated capacity restrictions and requirements for face coverings and social distancing in most settings. Private business owners may require employees and patrons to wear face coverings, but the governor’s latest executive order includes no mandate that they do so.

The order also authorizes local government officials to implement stricter Covid-19 requirements for face coverings, building capacity, and social distancing.

Face coverings continue to be required in K-12 public schools; childcare facilities; children’s day or overnight camps; public transportation, including airports, bus and train station, and bus stops; long-term health care facilities; prisons; and homeless shelters, based on Cooper’s latest executive order, which is scheduled to remain in effect until 5:00 p.m. on Friday, June 11.

 

Lambeth’s decision
The Alamance News filed a public records request with Lambeth on Tuesday to ascertain what information he had relied upon in deciding to continue the requirements for temperature checks at courthouse entrances, masks, and social distancing, especially given the changes announced by the CDC and Governor Roy Cooper.

Lambeth replied that his only public records were logistics of trying to set up a meeting of the six-member Judicial Leadership Team and one text from the county’s health department providing information on vaccination statistics.

The health department provided information that 31.5 percent of the Alamance County population had received both vaccines, 34.5 percent had received one. He said no comparison with state figures had been provided, and he seemed surprised when the newspaper’s reporter pointed out that the county’s full vaccination rate was higher than the state average (as noted above).

Lambeth responded during a lunch break Wednesday from a murder trial he is overseeing in the Historic Court House. He said the committee or team met last Wednesday afternoon, and that he issued his letter continuing the same approach Thursday morning – prior to the CDC’s guidance issued later that day and the Governor’s statement issued the following day.

The team is comprised of Lambeth; chief district court judge Brad Allen; district attorney Sean Boone; clerk of court Meredith Edwards; Rob Jennings, president of the local bar association; and John Paisley, also a local attorney and chairman of the county’s board of commissioners. All except Jennings were involved in last Wednesday’s meeting, Lambeth said.

Lambeth stressed that the decision he and the team made was “based on the best information that we had at the time.”

Pressed about whether he would consider revising the county’s court access rules given the subsequent CDC and governor’s changed positions, Lambeth indicated, “We will look at it again.”

He had said the group would look at the issue again in mid-June before deciding to extend the current requirements beyond “the end of June” as stated in his May 13 letter.

However, in the interview with The Alamance News, Lambeth conceded that he would now likely be “revisiting [the guidelines] soon,” in light of recent developments.

Lambeth also stressed that continuing to operate the court system in the midst of the pandemic over the past year has been very challenging. “We’re trying to balance safety with the need to return to normalcy,” he said, referring to the current state of court access, stressing that he has been “as diligent as I can be.”

At the same time, Lambeth said he struggles with questions of “do we put people shoulder to shoulder” in a courtroom and what to do about those who have not been vaccinated.

For his part, commissioner chairman Paisley, interviewed about other matters but asked whether court access should be changed in light of the new CDC guidance and directive from Gov. Cooper, said it should. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. If you’ve been vaccinated I don’t know why you need to wear a mask anymore.”


Read the newspaper’s editorial opinion on the issue, “Continued mask mandate in courts is nonsensical”: https://alamancenews.com/continued-mask-mandate-in-courts-is-nonsensical/

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