Despite spiking COVID-19 cases in New York related to the rise of the omicron variant of the virus, officials at state and federal courts on Wednesday said they have not made major changes to operations as they rely on the remote capabilities and infection control procedures established during previous increases in infection rates.
In the Southern District of New York, Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain said late Wednesday that remote access would be allowed for some criminal proceedings, in light of the new “highly transmissible” form of the virus.
Another Manhattan federal judge also hinted Wednesday that the court would soon impose an N-95 mask mandate at the courthouse in order to slow omicron’s spread.
Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration, said judges have been encouraged to make appearances virtual where feasible, but arraignments and most other criminal matters are still proceeding in person.
The webpage monitoring COVID-19 cases among state court employees and visitors reflected the spike, showing dozens of cases per day in recent days with a high of at least 76 newly reported cases on Dec. 21.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s was already scheduled as a court recess week for the Unified Court System, so no trials are calendared, but other court functions are set to proceed as normal, Chalfen said.
Edward Friedland, the district executive for the Southern District of New York, said the court was seeing more COVID-19 cases than before, but added that the increase was “not significant,” given the safety protocols in place.
More conferences in civil cases, he said, were shifting remote, but it remained up to individual judges to decide how to handle their dockets.
Friedland said that officials would continue to “look at the numbers” next week and would provide additional guidance in the coming days.
“We’re confident the protocols, if followed, will keep everyone safe,” he said.
The Southern District ended remote access for in-person criminal proceedings, including trials, on Nov. 1, saying that the “public can now access in-person proceedings relatively freely.” The court has since been providing overflow courtrooms for high-profile trials, including that of accused sex-trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell.
Under the new guidance announced Wednesday, video or teleconferencing would be authorized for detention hearings, initial appearances, preliminary hearings, arraignments, misdemeanor pleas and sentencings, with defendants’ consent. The directives did not include remote access for criminal trials.
The Southern District earlier in the week had also announced new protocols for international travelers entering the courthouse.
According to the memo, fully vaccinated travelers would need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test administered no more than three days before an international flight, as well as a negative molecular diagnostic test taken four days after their arrival in the U.S. They would still be allowed to enter the courthouse prior to receiving the second test or while the result was pending.
Unvaccinated travelers would be required to quarantine for seven days, in addition to fulfilling the testing requirements, and were barred from entering the courthouse until both results were returned.
In the Eastern District of New York, the District Executive’s Office said the court was not experiencing any “disruption in service” on Wednesday, while maximizing remote operations as a safety measure.
Case volumes are lower than a typical week due to upcoming holiday closures, the District Executive’s Office confirmed. Federal courts are open only Monday through Wednesday for the last two weeks of 2021.