Visitors to local courthouses in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties once again must wear masks.
Citing worsening health conditions in recent weeks, chief judges in the 6th and 13th judicial circuits issued administrative orders requiring that people wear masks in courtrooms and other public areas of local court facilities starting today. The judges also recommend courthouse visitors adhere to social distancing, though it is not required.
The order covering Pinellas and Pasco counties does not require masks in hallways or other areas outside courtrooms. However, masks are required anywhere that in-person court proceedings take place, as well as hearing rooms, jury assembly rooms and the law library.
Hillsborough’s order requires masks in all public courthouse areas. It also staggers the scheduling times for in-person court proceedings and imposes other measures to limit in-person courtroom attendance.
When local coronavirus transmission rates improve, the wearing of masks will become options, according to an administrative order in Hillsborough County.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020, courts statewide have shifted many routine matters to a remote format, with hearings conducted via Zoom video and telephonically. Jury trials must still occur in person; many cases were delayed several months last year during the worst of the pandemic. Trials have since continued with masks and and courtroom distancing.
Last week, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers issued a news release urging Florida courts to return to virtual hearings.
As coronavirus vaccinations became widely available in the spring and early summer, new infection rates went down. They have risen again in recent weeks as health restrictions have been relaxed and variants of the virus have continued to spread.
Statistics released Thursday by the Florida Department of Health last week show the percentage of new positive coronavirus cases among all people tested the previous week in Hillsborough County was 20.5 percent. In Pinellas it was was 16.7 percent and in Pasco it was 22.5 percent.