Florida courts get OK to lift mask, social-distancing rules
Judge Steven Rogers speaks to jurors during a trial at the Marion County Judicial Center on Wednesday. Facing a backlog of cases due to COVID-19, the Marion County Commission agreed to help pay the salaries of additional assistant state attorneys, a general magistrate and support staff for the public defenders’ office. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
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.
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.
In Marion County, jury trials resumed on March 8 after nearly a year hiatus with the spate of new COVID-19 rules. Everyone: Judges, attorneys, defendants and jurors had to wear masks.
Thanks to the social distancing rules, court officials had to get creative with space. To keep everyone six feet apart, prospective jurors were spread out across the courtroom to keep the required distance. In the jury assembly room, where the jury pool waits before heading to a courtroom, capacity went from 300 to 117 because of spacing requirements.
Because of the halt to jury trials, the courts relaxed rules on speedy-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 Oct. 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.