Nassau County's top judge guided attorneys from the local Bar Association's COVID-19 Committee on a tour Thursday of Supreme Court in Mineola for a look at changes made in the courthouse for jury trials as the pandemic continues.
"We're involved in the slow and deliberate return to operations," Nassau Administrative Judge Norman St. George said just before kicking off the tour. "… It's our view that the courts separate civilization from anarchy because here is where people come to have their matters addressed … And so it's important that we be able to have jury trials."
Those changes start right at the door, Maj. Karen Mulvey, one of the supervising court officers, explained as tour participants stood in the building's lobby with St. George.
Everyone in the building must wear a face mask. Visitors also undergo a temperature check and answer questions about potential COVID-19 exposure at magnetometers by the entrances. Inside, social distancing stickers on the floor remind people to stay well spaced and hand sanitizer stations are located throughout the building.
Officials said two jury trials already have finished in the Mineola court, which handles civil matters. Next month, jury trials in criminal matters are set to begin — also on a limited basis — at nearby Nassau County Court.
Suffolk County restarted both civil and criminal trials last month.
That included a trial where a defendant's wife tested positive for COVID-19, leading court officials to suspend the proceeding to allow for quarantining and contract tracing among the affected individuals, New York's Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a recent public statement.
But Nassau Jury Commissioner Robert Truzzolino told tour participants Thursday that the selection of panelists for both grand juries and trial juries has gone off without a hitch so far in Mineola.
"I was actually having nightmares about this first jury selection but it's been great since Day One," Truzzolino said, adding that turnout in response to jury service summonses mailed to county residents "has been unbelievable."
Potential jurors now sit several feet apart after reporting to the courthouse, and Truzzolino said officials understand some are hesitant about being part of a panel during the pandemic.
"If anybody has a problem we are very liberal with postponements," he said of jury service.
Nassau County Bar Association president Dorian R. Glover, who took part in the tour, said in an interview that he also believed some potential jurors may be concerned about what safety precautions would be put in place in the courthouse.
"We're here … to acknowledge everyone's concerns and to return in a safe manner," he added.
Separately, Nassau court officials confirmed that one grand juror, a teacher, was excused from service last week after finding out that one of his students had tested positive for COVID-19. The teacher's own test then came back negative for the virus, according to court officials, who said the rest of the grand jury panel continued its service without interruption.
For each trial in Nassau's Supreme Court, three courtrooms are being used — one for proceedings, one for jury deliberations and one where spectators and members of the press can watch on a screen where the live proceeding is piped in.
St. George walked tour participants through the three-room setup Thursday. He pointed out layout changes that include clear partitions erected on two sides of the judge's bench and the relocation of juror seating to courtroom rows where spectators previously sat.
Now witnesses will testify from the jury box and the tables where attorneys sit with their clients have been rotated in the courtroom to provide for more distancing.
Attorneys also won't be able to rove around the room while addressing jurors, but will deliver remarks from a podium, St. George said.
"I think it's going to work and I think we'll be able to move forward until the time when we can get back to more normal operations," tour participant Bill Croutier Jr., who heads the Bar Association's COVID-19 Committee, said later of all the changes.