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Courts Continue Despite COVID

Photo by Robert A. DeFrank – Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra’s courtroom sports a partition for inmates brought in for hearings, one more precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – Belmont County’s judges continue to hold court during the coronavirus pandemic, but with extra safeguards in place.

And the Ohio Supreme Court recently issued an advisory regarding such safeguards with new cases on the rise.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato said he adheres strictly to precautions, although social distancing requirements during trials have caused jurors to overflow from the jury box and into the benches usually reserved for the public.

“We are taking precautions,” he said. “Our caseloads are very heavy, but we are doing the same things as usual.”

He and Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra have been making more use of video testimony both during trials and hearings. Conference calls are another option for civil proceedings.

“Because of the rapid and burgeoning spread of the infection, the (state) Supreme Court has given direction to the court to take all action to try to stop in-person proceedings. We still have electronic capabilities,” Vavra said, adding that the courts are working with both Belmont Correctional Institution and the Belmont County Jail. Vavra also installed plexiglass shields in his court.

COVID-19 is also affecting the courts’ ability to find jurors.

“What we are also seeing is because of this local spread, people are exceedingly hesitant to come here,” Vavra said. “We had a potential juror contact us and indicate that under no circumstance could he possibly risk coming here because he’s at a higher risk category. He asked to be excused because he simply could not justify taking that risk.

“We ask quite a bit to have these people come in to perform their civic duties,” Vavra said. “We simply can’t justify the risk, given the uptick in cases we are experiencing. The local schools are affected. It’s just spreading like wildfire again.”

While Fregiato has not yet had to postpone his trials, he said the concerns of potential jurors are an issue.

“Those that have legitimate concerns, we are postponing their appearance by five to six months, but outside of that, we are proceeding forward,” Fregiato said.

Belmont County Juvenile and Probate Court Judge Al Davies said his courtroom operates under similar protocols and utilizes distance hearings when possible.

“We’ve got probation officers that go out to the schools and the kids’ houses. We’re not allowing our probation officers to go into the kids’ houses, we’re having them meet with the kids outside on the porch,” he said. “We are going to the schools when schools are open. … Our probation officers are, for the most part, working from home because they have the technology to do so. That’s one thing I’m concerned about, our probation officers, because they’re the ones going out to the public the most to supervise the kids. …

“For the most part, the individuals that have been exposed to people with COVID have been our probation officers, but we haven’t had any positive tests with our employees,” he noted.

Belmont County Western Division Judge Eric Costine recently was quarantined after a relative had potential exposure to COVID-19, but he was able to continue to preside over court cases using an online platform.

“It looks like we’re having another little outbreak. I’m starting to have new precautions at court again,” Costine said. “We’re kind of regressing back to what we were doing before. We thought we were through this and we’d open the court up, and now we’re kind of going backwards, maybe for the next month.”

The Northern and Eastern division courts have barred anyone not directly involved in a case from their courtrooms.

“I’m going to start locking the front door and closing down and doing pretrials without defendants being there — try to keep everything going as much as we can, but the least number of people in the courtroom,” Costine said.

He said the lower courts also are working with the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department to try to prevent jail overcrowding. The jail had its first cases of COVID-19 in late October.

“They would like us to defer sentences rather than sentencing people right now and incarcerating people,” Costine said.

Last week, the Belmont County Prosecutor’s Office was closed because of a staff member contracting the virus, but the work of filing cases and conducting trials continued even among those attorneys in quarantine.

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