St. Louis County courts shut down after employees contract coronavirus, return to hearings by video

St. Louis County courts shut down after employees contract coronavirus, return to hearings by video

After several employees tested positive for the coronavirus, the St. Louis County Circuit Court is returning to “Operating Phase Zero,” shutting down in-person court cases and restricting public access to the courthouse.

The decision by Presiding Judge Michael D. Burton means that, for the next two weeks, all in-person proceedings will be rescheduled and grand jury proceedings will be postponed.

However, the courts are not closed, Judge Burton emphasized. Court proceedings and trials will continue through videoconferencing, as they were for months earlier this year during the county’s stay-at-home order.

St. Louis County acting co-director of the Department of Public Health, Spring Schmidt, told the court earlier this week that she is “extremely concerned” about the number of new cases of COVID-19 in St. Louis County due to increased community spread. Schmidt said she expected the upward trend to continue as schools reopen.

Since the pandemic began, Missouri has had 33,624 confirmed cases of COVID-19; of those cases 9,361 (27.8 percent) came from St. Louis County, according to data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.  Of the 1,132 deaths due to COVID-19 in Missouri, 610 (58.9 percent) came from St. Louis County. The state reported on Wednesday the largest single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, the fifth time the state has topped its daily high in the last eight days.

The St. Louis County Library has had to shut down two of its branches, including the Weber Road Library in Affton, in the last week due to positive COVID cases.

The St. Louis County Courthouse remains open to accept all filings.  Those seeking orders of protection may enter the building to file their petitions, as the Adult Abuse Office remains open. Nonetheless, petitioners are urged to file their petitions for orders of protection online by going to the court’s website at wp.stlcountycourts.com/order-of-protection/.

Everyone must continue to wear masks and have their temperatures taken before they can enter the building.

“The courts are an essential public service, and the wheels of justice must continue to turn,” Burton said in a news release. “Our judges and IT staff have developed innovative ways to make that happen remotely. Yet, with the number of cases of COVID-19 rising sharply in St. Louis County and throughout the state, an additional level of caution is necessary to protect the health of our employees and the public. It is essential that we reduce personal contact and density in our building as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus.”

Starting this week, the court will have a “greatly reduced” staff, with as many employees as possible working from home. Even so, increased caution is important, Judge Burton said.

All of the COVID-19-positive employees have been quarantined at home, and their work stations have been commercially disinfected.  The St. Louis County Department of Public Health has been conducting contact tracing.  None of the employees is believed to have contracted the virus at the courthouse, but rather through community contact.

As directed by the Missouri Supreme Court May 4, judicial circuits cannot rush to “open their doors” during this pandemic.  They must do so gradually.

The Supreme Court developed four phases — Zero through Three — to allow for this process.  In determining whether changing phases is appropriate, the court provided specific “Gateway Criteria” to consider.  Burton and other leaders from the St. Louis County Courthouse and the community engage in weekly discussions to address the criteria and the St. Louis County Circuit’s phase.

While the Supreme Court authorized certain proceedings to occur in person even in Phase Zero, it did not mandate that those hearings occur in person. Courts in the city of St. Louis and St. Charles County are also increasing restrictions on public access and canceling in-person hearings due to the presence of the virus.