Most county courthouses are open to the public as of today, but two of the Northeast Kingdom’s three courthouses can’t be accessed due to air quality concerns.
The Vermont Judiciary said a high rate of vaccines against COVID-19 justifies a return to in-person court processes throughout much of the state. But, Vermont State Court Administrator Patricia Gabel said, the judiciary isn’t prepared to go all-in everywhere in the state.
“This is because [some courthouses] are too small to allow for social distancing or lack air quality systems capable of recirculating air to stem the spread of disease,” she stated Friday.
The lack of an adequate HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) system to ensure air quality means courthouses for Essex County in Guildhall and Orleans County in Newport won’t be fully opened yet. The amount of space in the Essex courthouse is also seen as a concern.
The Caledonia County Courthouse is open to the public and has been on a path toward full in-person functions in recent weeks, even returning to jury trials after a 15-month hiatus due to restrictions and fears related to the pandemic.
The Caledonia County Courthouse is one of eight courthouses state-wide designated by the Vermont Judiciary ready for in-person jury trials. The designation came after a year of installing protective barriers and improving air circulation and filtration in the courthouses. The court has also spent the year developing a process to allow for social distancing and other safety measures for trial participants.
Still, concerns about COVID spread means it won’t be business as usual even in the reopened court spaces.
“Not all Vermonters who come to court have a choice about how long they must remain there or with how many people they must be in close proximity,” said Gabel. “To keep everyone safe, we will require people who have business with the Judiciary to wear masks, to social distance, and to answer health screening questions when they enter our courthouses.”
She said people who have been vaccinated can take their vaccination record cards to the hearings with them and seek permission from the judge to remove their masks during the hearings.
“If a judge in a particular courtroom determines that all parties in a hearing or other proceeding are vaccinated, that judge has discretion to allow people to unmask during that proceeding while in that room,” she said.
The general rule as mandated by the judiciary is that people will wear masks in the courtroom and socially distance unless a judge permits otherwise.
Closed courthouses have not meant a stoppage of court business as hearings have been conducting remotely through a video conference over the internet. Even with most courthouses opening, the remote access isn’t going away at this point.
“Remote hearings have many benefits,” Gabel noted. “They’re efficient, more convenient for many, and virtually risk-free from disease transmission. We may continue them indefinitely.”
Six other county courthouses join Essex and Orleans deemed unfit for full public access. They are Bennington, Franklin, Grand Isle, Washington, Windham and Windsor. The work required to open them is ongoing, according to Gabel.
She also noted that even though doors may be closed to the buildings services continue.
The Essex Superior Court calendar now appears combined with the calendar for Caledonia County.