JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – COVID-19 precautions are being tightened at some courthouses across Northeast Florida because of the latest spike in cases.
On Monday, a mask mandate was re-implemented for courtrooms in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, as well as the federal courthouse in downtown Jacksonville.
Most in-person court proceedings were canceled in March 2020. Jury trials resumed in February. A month later, no masks were required. But with the recent surge of the delta variant, 4th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon said masks are once again mandatory inside courtrooms in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.
When asked about the future of in-person court proceedings, Mahon told News4Jax: “That’s up in the air. We expect to try to continue to do those in person.”
Mahon said 70 jurors were summoned to the courthouse on Monday for trials set to begin this week.
“Our jury assembly room in pre-COVID days could sit about 900 people, but were able to spread out,” he said.
He said Duval County has the luxury of space in the courthouse. The problem: Operations have to be scheduled out in advance.
“When you plan to be remote, you have to send notices and have people be told they are at her appearing remote. When you plan to be in person, it’s hard to flip that switch overnight,” Mahon said.
Mahon said that the COVID-19 numbers in the Duval County jail have “gone down slightly from last week.”
“I think it was down about 30 or 40 cases of COVID positives at the jail,” he said.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said Monday that of the 3,554 inmates at the Pre-Trial Detention Facility, Montgomery Correctional Center and Community Transition Center as of 6 a.m., there are currently 1,172 inmates in quarantine. As of Aug. 1, according to JSO, there were 112 inmates who had tested positive. JSO also said there are currently 40 reported cases of positive employees in the Jails Division.
Over at the federal courthouse, jury selection was expected to begin Monday in the case involving Lt. Fan Yang, a Chinese-born member of the U.S. Navy with top-secret clearance who was stationed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville. He and his wife are accused of running an operation with two Chinese nationals to get them military equipment that would wind up in the hands of the communist government.
The judge said they had planned on bringing 80 potential jurors in for that case, but an epidemiologist put a pause on it because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. Federal prosecutors also made mention to at least a dozen of law enforcement officers who would have to travel for the trial to testify.
“One of our best offenses is still also social distancing,” said Dr. Shalika Katugaha, an infectious disease specialist at Baptist Health. “While it may be frustrating and difficult that these cases have to take a pause, really they do have to take a pause for the health of the community and all of the individuals involved.”
Katugaha, who is not associated with the federal case, said the delta variant is 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant.
“If people are getting together in certain areas of high transmission, masking, social distancing, handwashing are all key to slowing the spread,” said Katugaha.
At this time, there is no exact date when jury trials will resume at the federal courthouse.
In the meantime, Yang’s defense attorney is looking to file a motion to allow home detention as he awaits trial.