(Editor’s Note: When I last was at Sacramento County Superior Court in early March, just days before the courts closed because of COVID-19, I covered parts of three trials in two days in jampacked courtrooms where they had to bring in extra chairs to fit everyone. It was hard to breathe, it was hot and stuffy, and walking out through equally crowded hallways I decided with this “virus” thing maybe courtrooms are not that safe. Today’s story paints a stark contrast of how post-coronavirus Sacramento Superior Court has changed. Lauren Smith is the first Vanguard reporter, if not the first reporter from any publication, to be in the courts post COVID-19. – Crescenzo Vellucci)
By Lauren Smith
SACRAMENTO – This morning, walking up to Sacramento Superior Court, I prepared myself for a disorganized and bustling courthouse with hardly any precautions taken for COVID-19.
But, after arriving and entering the courthouse, I found out I was wrong. I was pleasantly surprised.
After parking and walking to the main entrance with the beautiful water sculpture fountain, there was a sign posted on the door that this entrance was closed and only the entrance on the 8th Street side was open. There were no signs posted on any other areas of the building about this entrance closure. Not a good start.
I walked around to the other side of the building to see about 20 people milling around. There was a table set up to the left of the entrance up the stairs for people to check-in who have public defenders.
Directly in front of the entrance was a tent, staffed by three bailiffs or deputies. A sign was posted outside stating that, in order to enter the courthouse, a temperature check is required.
In addition, there were two people with clipboards checking people in, making sure they knew which department they needed to go to. I later learned that this clipboard system caused communication problems, specifically for the public defenders.
The attorneys with the clipboards and those at the public defender’s table checking people in only had access to their names in alphabetical order, not the charges against them or the court calendar. This resulted in confusion about when people were supposed to be in court and some people were sent to the wrong department.
Despite the stated precautions required for inside the courthouse, there did not appear to be any enforcement of face masks or social distancing outside of the courthouse. Not encouraging.
While most people did appear to be wearing masks, there were a handful of people who were not, and nobody told them to put one on. There were no arrows, dots, or guides to enforce social distancing, however, most seemed to be self-enforcing social distancing.
Once I passed through the doors, it all changed.
The temperature check was quick and non-invasive. I gave my name, and a deputy came up and asked if I was with the Vanguard. I said yes, and was waved into the mammoth building.
Wearing a mask at all times was required. I even saw a judge admonish someone in the courtroom whose mask had slipped down below their nose.
What stood out to me the most upon entering the courthouse was how empty it was. Nobody was hanging out in the hallways, there were no lines for the restrooms—even the departments were empty.
There are COVID-19 safety signs posted, prohibiting loitering in the hallways, limiting to two people at a time in elevators and restrooms, and signs inside the departments saying only seven people allowed in the seating area at once.
Additionally, both inside and outside of the departments, caution tape stretched over the prohibited seats to allow for seats to be spaced six feet apart.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the precautions taken by Sacramento Superior Court—I hope the courthouse continues to maintain COVID-19 guidelines for visitors, staff and reporters like me.
In short, as I told a colleague, I felt much, much safer inside the courthouse with everyone masked all the time and social-distanced than I did “outside” in the rest of the world, where people often don’t wear masks or recognize social distancing.
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