PROVIDENCE — The state and federal courts in Rhode Island are keeping a close watch on court staff and litigants who enter the courthouses in light of ongoing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Feb. 28, the Rhode Island judiciary had one employee who had traveled to or near affected areas abroad or had come in contact with someone who had. That person voluntarily self-quarantined although the staff member have no symptoms, according to courts spokesman Craig N. Berke.
Two others inquired about circumstances, but they were not self quarantined as a result, Berke said.
“The state judiciary has plans for continuing operations in the event of a pandemic or a natural disaster,” Berke said.
The chief judicial officers and administrators of all six courts were briefed Friday and were provided with copies of or a link to an emergency response “benchbook” from the National Center for State Courts and the State Justice Institute, which provides guidance on court operations, Berke said.
Rhode Island State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell and State Court Administrator J. Joseph Baxter Jr. on Friday also sent court employees a memorandum updating them on the Administrative Office of State Courts’ efforts to monitor this concern and supplied them with state Department of Health information about the coronavirus and best practices for prevention.
The U.S. District and the U.S. Bankruptcy courts in Rhode Island have distributed hand sanitizer and updated staff on best practices.
“Fortunately, we have an excellent telework structure where staff can continue to log into their work from home and do almost all tasks other than public facing work (courtroom services), so we feel like we will be able to limit exposure if/when needed,” Susan M. Thurston, clerk of U.S. Bankruptcy Court, said in an email.
Thurston said the court believes it will be able to continue operations smoothly even with larger than normal employee absences, due to backup resources in place.
The federal judiciary has directed the U.S. District Court to follow CDC guidance, Clerk of Court Hanorah Tyer-Witek said.
Juries are not scheduled to be empaneled on any cases this month “thankfully,” Tyer-Witek said in an email.
“In the event of a pandemic, judges would have discretion to delay or postpone hearings and trials in accordance with the CDC’s social distancing recommendations. If the Constitution required a trial move forward, we would take all precautions to ensure the safety of all parties as well as the jurors,” she said.
The number of employees of the state judiciary who have been self quarantined was incorrect in an earlier version of this story due to misinformation.
On Twitter: @kmulvane