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Lack of social distancing in Pinellas courthouse alarms lawyers

Courtrooms were packed. Few wore masks. The court says the crowds were due to a misunderstanding.

LARGO — When defense attorney Maria Pavlidis arrived at the Pinellas County Justice Center on Monday, she was shocked by the lack of social distancing measures.

The parking lot was packed and there was a long line to get into the county’s criminal courthouse. Inside, few people wore masks and crowded into courtrooms — in one alone, she counted 25 people sitting together.

“I am angry and appalled at what I saw,” she said. “This should not be happening and it doesn’t look like they are abiding by the (Florida) Supreme Court’s administrative orders.”

Florida courts currently operate under Phase 1 re-opening standards. For the legal system, that means “in person contact is inadvisable, court facilities are effectively closed to the public, and in-person proceedings are rare."

Pinellas courtrooms had been following those guidelines in recent months. Pavlidis recalled visiting a nearly empty courthouse for just a few “mission critical” hearings. But something changed.

After hearing from multiple lawyers alarmed by the scene, defense attorney and activist Haydee Oropesa wrote to Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino on Tuesday about the situation.

“Can you please tell me how this is not a violation of the administrative orders currently in effect?” she asked. “Why are we not implementing technology?"

The circuit court’s public information officer, Stephen Thompson, blamed the influx of people on shifting guidelines and said he expected it “to be a one-time thing.” By Wednesday, the crowds had “tapered off significantly," he said.

In early May, an order from the Florida Supreme Court said Phase 1 restrictions would expire on May 29. The Pinellas Clerk of the Circuit Court sent out notices to appear for criminal hearings the first week of June, Thompson said.

But on May 21, the Florida Supreme Court amended the Phase 1 order and extended it until July 6. By then, “the horse was out of the barn,” Thompson said. Hearings had already been set.

Rondolino sent copies of the new orders to all judges and court staff, as well as others associated with the court. To adapt to the shift, judges were told to encourage defense attorneys to appear only for cases set to be resolved. Otherwise they could appear via video conferencing or by phone. But it appears not everyone got the message, Thompson said.

“What happened (Monday) is a lot of people arrived, because judges thought that those restrictive measures were done with,” he said. “We’ve been doing our best to ensure only those people who need to be here are here."

But Oropesa said attorneys still want most cases to be held via video conferencing during Phase 1, including those set to be resolved.

Hillsborough County’s courthouses had also planned to return to in-person hearings on Monday, but didn’t encounter the same problems.

After Phase 1 was extended, Hillsborough court officials cancelled hearings and mailed out new notices, said circuit spokesman Mike Moore. A few people uncertain about their court date showed, he said, but, “I’m not aware of any big re-scheduling snafu."

Tampa attorney Jim Amarosa said he’s had no issues in Hillsborough circuit court this week. On Monday, he logged onto a Zoom call and defended his client, who was isolated in California, as he has been doing for nearly every case since the end of March.

“Everybody is safe and in quarantine, nobody is risking anybody’s life and nobody is spreading COVID-19,” he said.“It was a very simple process in Hillsborough. Pinellas just decided to keep conducting hearings.”

The Florida Supreme Court is looking into the Pinellas circuit’s social-distancing practices. “Everyone is working to get it right in the initial stages of making a transition toward less constrained operations in this unprecedented public health crisis,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

During her visit to the courthouse at 14250 49th St. N, Pavlidis said she saw court deputies barefaced. Security employees made no effort to ask people to stay six feet apart and said the bins used to holds shoes, phones, backpacks and briefcases through the security line were not being wiped down regularly, she said.

Thompson did not respond to questions about specific health measures in place this week to deal with the increased foot traffic — including whether temperature checks were conducted, if masks were required or how the facility was being disinfected. He said other agencies, like the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Pinellas County government, were responsible for the facility and staffing.

Amarosa called Pinellas’ court officials’ decision not to postpone hearings until Phase 2 “insane.”

“It is one thing for a person not to follow the guidelines, but it is another when the government sends a notice to appear and you as a citizen have no choice but to put yourself at risk," he said.

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