New York City courthouses present an 'unacceptably high risk' for contracting Covid-19, report says

As New York City closes some schools again, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci says he is "disturbed and concerned" about the baseline of coronavirus cases in the US. CNN's Nick Watt reports.

Posted: Oct 6, 2020 9:31 AM
Updated: Oct 6, 2020 9:31 AM

Going into some New York City courthouses that have begun to resume in-person activity poses "an unacceptably high risk" of spreading Covid-19 because of issues with crowding, ventilation and improper use of masks, according to a third-party report.

"In several courthouses due to the physical layout, there were no articulated plans to keep the public safe once they enter the courthouse," the report states. "In these courthouses, entering the courthouses poses an unacceptably high-risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 due to the number of people who congregate in close proximity when forming lines and the lack of dedicated, sufficiently ventilated space to wait for courtroom appearances."

Coronavirus infections have spiked in several New York City neighborhoods recently, prompting the closure of many schools starting Tuesday -- less than a week after they reopened. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo attributed the rise to the city's poor enforcement, saying the state would need to intervene in enforcement of measures against the virus to stamp out clusters.

The report on courthouses was conducted by a company called CrowdRx, a team of emergency physicians and public safety experts, and commissioned by The Legal Aid Society as well as several public defender services in New York City. It was based on courthouse tours between June and August and was released to the groups on August 11.

A copy of the report was released to CNN by Lori Zeno, executive director of Queens Defenders, who shared it with CNN because she felt it was in the public's interest.

"I can't sit by and have this information in my hand when I know these people are coming into a building that is not safe," Zeno told CNN.

"I do not feel like our lawyers are safe, I do not feel like our clients are safe, and I do not feel that the general public is safe," Zeno told CNN. "On some level we all are part of the system, we chose that. But the grand jurors did not."

A CrowdRx spokeswoman told CNN that while it does not have an epidemiologist as part of its team, it does use the expertise of emergency physicians, pediatricians, orthopedists, physicians with fellowship training in disaster management as well as a physician with a master of public health with an epidemiological focus in microbial pathogens.

Ineffective and inconsistent

The authors of the report, which includes CrowdRx Medical Director Dr. Matt Friedman, an emergency medicine physician, took part in tours in June, July and August in courthouses in all five boroughs to learn about policies that the Office of Court Administration was implementing to reopen courts to the public.

The report's authors said they witnessed "a culture of improper and inconsistent" use of personal protective equipment. The authors saw court staff wearing face shields without masks on underneath and that people held in custody were either not wearing masks or wearing them improperly.

The report also states that its authors were unable to determine if policies to use recommended types of air filters were being implemented. CrowdRX recommended courthouses put up signs to let the public know what types of air filtration is being used in each building.

Court staff had plans to put in plexiglass dividers throughout the courthouses but the report states that in many cases the dividers were "ineffective and inconsistent."

"There were no acceptable arraignment spaces identified during the site visits. Attorneys and clients need a protected, partitioned, well ventilated arraignment space in order to conduct meetings," the report states.

Court says issues have been addressed

The report concludes by saying that, since in-person appearances have resumed, the Office of Court Administration should address the areas of concern "immediately."

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said in a statement to CNN that Legal Aid Society, which commissioned the report, has opposed all in-person court appearances "no matter how limited."

Chalfen pointed out that the findings from the report are based on visits that were made, in some cases, several months ago, and that most of, if not all, of the issues "have been addressed." Chalfen said plexiglass barriers, updated air filtration, personal protective equipment coordinators have been added, and now everyone entering courthouses must have their temperatures checked, among other requirements.

"Additionally, the notion that we will be returning to the levels of courthouse visits in New York City which were approximately 300,000 a week pre-pandemic, and are 30,000 now, anytime soon, is fiction," Chalfen said. "The fact of the matter is there are no crowds in NYC Courthouses, and there are no immediate plans to bring them back."

But Zeno disagrees, saying she wants the report's authors to be let back into courthouses to assess whether the changes needed to make courthouses safe during the pandemic were actually made.

"Your HVAC systems have all been updated in a matter of days? Show us," Zeno said. "Let them back in. Let them see if they really did fix it. Show us records that you really did fix it."

CNN asked if the Office of Court Administration would allow CrowdRx back into courthouses to see if areas of concern have been fixed since the report's findings in August.

"We have our own epidemiologist whose recommendations we follow," Chalfen responded.

In a statement to CNN, Friedman said CrowdRx was simply hired to assess the risks inside courthouses.

"Since meeting with CrowdRx, the courts have made significant changes," Friedman said. "CrowdRx and Dr. Friedman were not hired to give an opinion about whether or not it is in the public's best interest to resume normal activity -- only to assess the risk and provide a report."

Ensuring safety in the times of coronavirus

The criminal courthouse where Queens Defenders do much of their work is in Kew Gardens, one of the neighborhoods New York City's Department of Health has deemed an area of concern for its increase in positive Covid-19 cases over the last several days.

Since March 15, 222 court personnel have tested positive for the virus, Chalfen said, but that the courts only track their employees -- not jurors, attorneys or defendants who spend hours inside the courthouses.

Zeno said her attorneys have been in court with defendants, court workers and even judges who were either not wearing masks or not wearing them properly. She shared an email she sent staffers about what to do if they see anyone at a proceeding not wearing a mask.

"They are to turn around and leave immediately," Zeno said. "Come back to my office and see me and I will handle it."

Zeno says she is concerned that courthouses are insisting on seeing more in person cases, simply to adjourn them for later dates.

"Literally, the cases are called, they're on the record less than two minutes," She said. "Why are you dragging these people in court?"

At an August 21 New York State Senate hearing on the re-opening of courts after the report was submitted, attorneys from the Legal Aid Society said in testimony that the report raised "significant concerns."

"There remains no clear plan for ensuring people's safety from the transmission of COVID-19," a statement read. "Despite these concerns, in-person appearances have resumed and continue to escalate in volume, putting people in danger."

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, head of all New York State courts, said in a September 14 message that "as the judicial branch of government, our solemn obligation is to restore the constitutional right to a trial by jury as soon as it is safe and responsible for us to do so."

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