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As hearings and jury trials resume, some Douglas County judges mandate masks in courtrooms

As hearings and jury trials resume, some Douglas County judges mandate masks in courtrooms

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People wait outside courtrooms at the Douglas County Courthouse in mid-March. In 3½ months, with hundreds of visitors and dozens of staff members working staggered shifts, courthouse officials say they know of 11 people who work there who have tested positive for COVID-19.

If two of the state’s longest-serving public attorneys had their way, Lady Justice would slide that blindfold from her eyes down over her mouth.

And so would every other person who steps before her at the Douglas County Courthouse.

Masks aren’t mandatory in the hallways of Nebraska’s largest courthouse — Gov. Pete Ricketts declared that local officials can’t make masks mandatory if they want federal COVID-19 dollars.

But judges can make them mandatory in their courtrooms — and so can Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, in their offices. So Kleine and Riley have put up signs telling people to put on a mask. And many judges — though not all — have followed suit in Douglas County.

The precautions — not only masks but hand sanitizing, social distancing and screening of entrants — are being emphasized as courthouses across the state enter a new phase amid the pandemic: the resumption of jury trials and evidentiary hearings.

In Kearney, the Buffalo County Courthouse already has held two trials in which jurors wore masks, spread out and were able to decide cases, said Corey Steel, Nebraska state court administrator.

“They went off without a hitch,” Steel said.

In Omaha, court officials are gearing up for trials to restart, including a double-murder trial starting in mid-July.

In that case, Douglas County District Judge Marlon Polk has ordered that prospective jurors, attorneys and witnesses wear masks as evidence is heard in the case of Nyir Kuek, charged in the June 2019 shooting deaths of Michael Sykora, 57, and Tracy Atkins, 50, in a Florence-area home.

Polk also has ordered a rearranging of his courtroom, including the removal of three rows of churchlike pews from the gallery. That way, jurors will be able to sit on chairs 6 feet apart rather than packing into a cramped jury box. The jury box will be reserved for a limited number of relatives of the victims and/or defendant and members of the news media.

Riley said officials have sent summons to more jurors than normal, in part because of a fear that some jurors will skip their summons and try to avoid jury duty during the pandemic.

Riley, who is at the courthouse every day, said he drives home on Farnam Street and, on recent days, has seen bars and restaurants packed in the Blackstone District. The district sits in the shadows of the Nebraska Medical Center, where officials are treating the virus and fighting for a vaccine.

Riley said he can’t help but fear a surge. That’s why he has required masks in his office.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Riley, who has been in the Public Defender’s Office for more than 40 years. “Do I think the courthouse is totally safe? No. People can wander in without masks on, and no one is going to stop them.

“But I’m here every day. And I guess it’s as safe as could be expected.”

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In 3½ months, with hundreds of visitors and dozens of staff members working staggered shifts, courthouse officials say they know of 11 people who have tested positive for the virus: Three total in Kleine’s office in March-April (two of whom were presumptively positive); three total in Riley’s office in May-June; one juvenile court judge in May; one private defense attorney; one district court clerk who works in the protection order office on the third floor; and two county court clerks on the second floor.

The two positive tests of clerks on the second floor occurred in the past 10 days. First, a supervisor tested positive for COVID-19 on June 25.

Steel said that led county court officials to test a handful of co-workers — and allow other workers to go get tested on their own. One of those co-workers, a cashier, tested positive last Monday.

The supervisor had held job interviews prior to her illness. While the cashier did deal with the public, Steel said, the public shouldn’t be at risk. The courthouse recently underwent renovations that have put all second-floor clerks behind glass, with slots where those paying fines place their money.

As of Thursday, no other second-floor court workers had tested positive, Steel said.

Court staff said health officials have been unable to pinpoint a source in most cases. Officials suspect the cashier got it from her supervisor. One of Kleine’s prosecutors, who was the first known positive case at the courthouse, contracted it on an out-of-state, nonwork-related training trip.

Riley said the three cases in his office have been “no joke.”

“All three of them said it kicked their ass,” Riley said.

Thankfully, he said, those people have recovered. And Riley said the Douglas County Health Department has done a good job of tracing and testing people who have come in contact with the staff members. In addition, the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission has deep-cleaned court offices in the aftermath of each exposure.

A handful of Douglas County district judges reportedly have been skeptical — thinking that officials are overreacting to the virus. Then a personal trainer for one of the judges got it. That judge now is in quarantine.

Kleine said he has had to talk to his office’s visitors about his mask policy. One visitor told Kleine he didn’t need to wear one. You do if you’re coming in my office, Kleine said.

“Our office has been pretty fortunate,” Kleine said. “People have made tremendous sacrifices over the history of our country, and hopefully this pandemic will be done at some point. But it’s not like we’re rationing food or gasoline or sending our children off to war. Wearing a mask — it just isn’t that difficult.”

Look back at our best staff photos from June 2020

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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