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Coronavirus cases mount in LI courts despite mostly virtual model

Nassau County Administrative Judge Norman St. George gives

Nassau County Administrative Judge Norman St. George gives a tour of the changes implemented at the Supreme Court Building on Oct. 15 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Cases of coronavirus in Long Island's courts have continued to mount even after state administrators modified operations to a mostly virtual model and significantly reduced in-person workforces late last year, state records show.

By Wednesday, there had been 60 notifications about positive COVID-19 results among people in Long Island’s state court facilities since the start of 2021. The records show 31 cases in Nassau and 29 in Suffolk, mostly involving court employees.

In Nassau, that included nine staffers in Family Court in Westbury — but also a grand juror in Mineola. In Suffolk, coronavirus cases this year included two people working in the office of the county’s top judge, Administrative Judge Andrew Crecca — cases three weeks apart that he called unrelated.

"I think it’s fair to say that we’ve definitely seen a bump that coincides with the overall bump in numbers post-holiday season," Crecca said Wednesday of the rise of COVID-19 cases in the courts as numbers increased Islandwide.

But the judge added that contact tracing indicates Suffolk court employees seem to be catching the virus "in their outside lives" and safety protocols that include mask-wearing, courthouse cleanings and a reduced in-person workforce appear to be working. Crecca emphasized that with more than 1,000 court employees in Suffolk, the number of COVID-19 positives in the courts is statistically low.

Nassau Administrative Judge Norman St. George echoed the same message about the COVID-19 cases in Nassau, which has 966 court employees. He also said contact tracing showed staff who contracted the virus were not getting it at work — even in Family Court.

"We found that they did not contract the virus in the courthouse … We found no connection whatsoever with them," he said of those employees.

St. George said the staffers had separate workspaces within the building, with different bathrooms, and weren't in close contact. Records show one of the nine who tested positive after being in the court was a litigant, not an employee.

"I am dismayed every time I hear about a case … there came a time right after the holidays where to me it seemed like I was getting the notifications almost every day about someone testing positive," St. George said.

But Nassau's top judge added he believes "overall, the trendline has gone down" and that widespread distribution of vaccines ultimately is what will get the court system back to normal operations — hopefully starting by June.

Suffolk’s top judge said he is "definitely concerned" about the rate of vaccinations in New York, calling it a "slow process" to get court employees vaccinated. Crecca also said he doesn’t anticipate a return to in-person trials in Suffolk "probably until sometime in the spring."

Because of virus concerns, four newly elected judges in Nassau County took their oaths of office last week in ceremonies that were broadcast virtually, according to Nassau court spokesman Daniel Bagnuola. He said the so-called "hybrid" events, with portions pretaped and only 10 participants appearing in person for each swearing-in, were an innovation aimed at bypassing a large public gathering. Four more are set for Friday.

The strategy marked another first for the local court system amid the pandemic after Nassau held the state’s first-ever hybrid criminal trial last summer — with the murder defendant appearing via Skype.

The formal "robing" ceremony for new Suffolk judges has been delayed indefinitely due to virus concerns, according to Crecca.

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