Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. Photo: David Handschuh/NYLJ

New York’s court system is postponing all “nonessential” services as officials move to slow a growing coronavirus outbreak that as of Monday had infected at least 950 people across the state. 

Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks announced the plan’s specifics in a Sunday memorandum addressed to court employees. The postponements were set to begin at 5 p.m. Monday.

All eviction proceedings and pending eviction orders will be suspended statewide, according to the memorandum, and felony matters where the defendant is not in custody will be “administratively adjourned” until further notice.

Felony matters where the defendant is in custody will be “administratively adjourned” or be conducted via video in New York City and other jurisdictions that have the technology, according to the memorandum.

In the state court’s appellate division, the First, Second and Third Departments announced the end of in-person arguments. Attorneys were instructed to make written submissions instead, although officials in the First and Second Departments said Skype may be an option for oral arguments in some circumstances. In the Third Department, attorneys who did not want to make written submissions were told to request a new date on the calendar. The Fourth Department, where arguments are not set to begin again until March 30, had yet to make an announcement Monday.

As of midday Monday, the New York State Court of Appeals remained open for arguments Tuesday. In a letter Friday, the court’s chief clerk said lawyers could request other arrangements if needed, including argument by videoconference. People with possible coronavirus exposure or flu-like symptoms were told to avoid court.

In Supreme Court, justices may still allow “essential applications,” like civil commitments, guardianships and Mental Hygiene law applications, the memorandum reported. And Family Court may still allow issues tied to juvenile delinquency proceedings, family offenses and child protection proceedings.

Jury trials in New York state were already expected to come to a near-halt Monday under previously announced rules.

The postponements from the state court’s system reflects a larger push by New York’s government to cut down on the number of person-to-person interactions and large gatherings where the coronavirus can spread quickly.

“The New York state court system congregates many people—tens of thousands of people all across the state,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday at the press conference in Albany.

Cuomo said he had asked Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to come up with a plan.

In a dramatic move aimed at cutting down on the coronavirus spread, the governors of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced sweeping new crowd capacity rules that were set to go into effect at 8 p.m. Monday.

Restaurants and bars will close their on-premise service starting at 8 p.m., but will be allowed to continue with takeout and delivery services, according to Cuomo’s office.

Gyms, movie theaters and casinos will temporarily close starting 8 p.m. Monday as well, Cuomo said, and there will be no more gatherings of more than 50 people.

Cuomo last week took advantage of his newly expanded emergency powers to institute a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people and new rules that cut a business’ legal operating capacity by half. 

COVID-19 is a declared pandemic by the World Health Organization and state officials say New York is now home to the most recorded cases in the U.S., with 950 confirmed cases across the state as of midday Monday.

Almost half of those cases are tied to New York City and 220 cases are related to Westchester County, according to state officials.

Cuomo was quick to point out that the court’s new rules would keep “essential” operations ongoing, like criminal justice services and emergency family services.

“Don’t jeopardize the criminal justice system, don’t jeopardize safety, don’t jeopardize family integrity, but if it’s nonessential then postpone it,” Cuomo said Sunday.

Janet Sabel, CEO and attorney-in-chief of The Legal Aid Society, issued a statement praising the court system’s decision to suspend eviction proceedings. 

“Evicting a single family and forcing them onto the street or into the shelter system—which is already overburdened and a potential hotbed of contagion—during this unprecedented public health emergency would be inhumane and cruel,” she said in the statement.

Over the weekend, officials announced two New York Assemblymembers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and the state Capitol would be closed to visitors. New York also announced its first coronavirus-related deaths.

The state’s prison agency on Saturday suspended visitations to all correctional facilities until April 11, but said legal visits will still be permitted.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision says it will provide inmates with five free stamps per week, two free secure messages through an electronic tablet per week and one free telephone call per week.

“The current situation demands this significant action to safeguard the health and safety of all incarcerated individuals, employees, as well as their families and communities,” the agency said in a press release.

Angling to prepare for a surge of patients on the state’s hospital system, Cuomo also called on President Donald Trump to enlist the Army Corps of Engineers to retrofit military bases or college dormitories into temporary medical centers.

“Otherwise we will be sitting here nine weeks, 10 weeks, 14 weeks from today seeing a health care system overrun,” he said. “We will be saying we knew this was going to happen, why didn’t we provide more health care facilities.”

There are about 53,000 hospital beds in New York, of which about 3,000 are intensive care beds, Cuomo said. But, he argues there needs to be more hospital capacity to handle the additional coronavirus patients.

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