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City courts prep for ‘new normal’: Face masks, screenings, plexiglass partitions

As Upstate courts begin to reopen, Chief Judge urges patience

May 27, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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Following a week where the New York State court system reopened courthouses in 40 counties, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said that she and other administrators are busy at work preparing the other counties, including New York City, and added that Hudson Valley and Long Island courts will be the next to reopen.

“The court system is following, and supporting, Governor Cuomo’s plan to reopen the economy on a regional, phased-in basis,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “Under phase 1, we have restored limited in-person operations, and we have authorized the filing of new lawsuits in all of the regions and counties covered by the governor’s reopening orders.

“While this is an important step forward in our emergence from the pandemic, I do want to stress that this is not a return to business as usual, but rather a return to a ‘new normal’ defined by limited courthouse traffic and procedures and safety measures designed to reduce the risk of virus transmission and ensure the health and safety of judges, court staff and all court users and visitors,” she continued.

As the courts have reopened in 48 of 62 counties, they have done so with precautions in place to ensure social distancing, and whenever possible, operations are carried out online. COVID-symptom screenings are performed at entrances, everyone is wearing masks and PPE, plexiglass partitions have been installed, and strict cleaning and sanitizing standards have been put in place.

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“This will be the new normal, and everyone will have to adapt and get used to the new normal as we gradually loosen restrictions and safely return, phase by phase, to fuller in-person operations,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

Since mid-March, when the court system closed, it had only allowed new cases if they were deemed emergency or essential. On Monday, the court system finally opened up to new filings, both Upstate and in New York City. New matters are being filed through the e-filing system or by mail in courts without that system.

Prior to allowing new case filings, the court system had been encouraging judges to focus on cleaning out their backlogs of old cases. Chief Judge DiFiore said that Upstate, all but one county had managed to clear its backlogs entirely. She said that in New York City the number of backlogged cases and motions had been cut in half.

“In the city, the sheer volume of pending motions has made the challenge more difficult, but we’re making good progress and the backlog has been reduced by more than half,” she said.

Starting on Wednesday, courts in Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester counties will begin reopening. On Friday, Nassau and Suffolk counties will reopen, the Chief Judge said in a separate announcement. These courts have already begun accepting new cases through the e-filing system.

Brooklyn lawyers and judges, including Dominick Napoletano, the treasurer of the NYS Bar Association, have cautioned that even as Upstate courts reopen, NYC courts are weeks and perhaps months away.

However, on Tuesday, speaking with the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, Justice Anthony Cannataro, administrative judge of the NYC Civil Court, said that it’s more likely to be weeks and not months. He predicted the courts could be open by June 22. However, he added that everything that can take place virtually is likely to take place virtually, and that courts will look nothing like they did as recently as December 2019.

“The court system is making encouraging progress, and we are steadily emerging from the pandemic,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “We have embarked on phase 1 of our gradual return to in-person courthouse operations in 48 of our 62 counties, and we have resumed the filing of new lawsuits in all 62 counties across the state.

“We hope and expect that this forward progress will continue with each coming week, but we won’t take that outcome for granted. We will remain disciplined and responsible, and we will take every protective precaution necessary to avoid new outbreaks of the virus. Given what is at stake, we can’t afford, and we will not take, any shortcuts that turn out to be the long way around.”

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