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Fairfax County courts reinstate mask requirements due to COVID-19

Fairfax County Courthouse (via Google Maps)

(Updated at 2:30 p.m.) The Fairfax County Courthouse is renewing its mask policy once again even as the judicial system tries to inch back to normal amid a backlog of cases.

The Fairfax County Circuit Court issued an amended order today (Wednesday) stating that, effective immediately, masks will again be required to enter the judicial complex and in all public areas in the courthouse, though judges have the authority to let individuals take off their masks in their courtrooms.

At the same time, courts are starting to resume more in-person procedures. Plexiglass barriers have been installed to keep jurors socially distanced, and defense attorneys as of last month have been able to meet with clients in the jail rather than trusting in Zoom to meet confidentially.

But amid the safety efforts, many cases have been delayed, putting a pause on justice.

“The backlog remains a major factor in our operations and is unlikely to be fully resolved for years,” said Ben Shnider, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission, which now includes Fairfax County.

That reversed a loosened CDC policy that began May 13 — prior to the highly transmissible delta variant making up over four out of five coronavirus cases in the U.S.

The Fairfax County Courthouse says its reversal was due to the CDC update but noted that a presiding judge may direct otherwise in individual courtrooms.

Inside the courthouse, there’s yet to be a criminal trial with the new plexiglass format for the county’s chief public defender, Dawn Butorac, who wonders if the changes will influence jurors’ perceptions.

“It’ll be interesting to see how a witness is perceived in that environment,” she said. “It’ll be closer to normal.”

Under a transition plan that was last adopted on July 7, the Fairfax County Circuit Court restarted in-person hearings for all civil trials and non-Friday motions on July 1.

The courthouse installed the plexiglass changes this summer to increase the number of criminal trials, but backlogs remain throughout the system.

During the pandemic, arrests continued, but courts scaled back operations. Notably, in early 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court suspended a state law that adds another level of protection to one’s constitutional right to speedy trials. The suspension was renewed in September.

Even as operations ramp back up, citizens still have the option to postpone jury duty when summoned to court. COVID-19 questionnaires allow people to postpone their legally required obligation, depending on individuals’ circumstances regarding the virus. Exemptions include health conditions such as cancer, obesity, heart issues, and asthma, as well as pregnancy and smoking.

While the backlog in cases will still be a challenge, Fairfax County’s most recent budget enabled the commonwealth attorney’s office to add 15 positions, increasing its staff to 83.

That means there will be 50 prosecutors compared to 25 attorneys in the public defender’s office, according to Butorac.

“In theory…we have progressive prosecutors that should be prosecuting less,” Butorac said.

Descano and his office have sought to adopt a progressive approach that seeks alternatives to jail sentences when possible, arguing that diversion efforts can keep people from being unnecessarily criminalized and help prevent recidivism.

According to Descano’s office, it will continue to prioritize alternatives to incarceration when a case “best meets the safety and justice needs of the community.” In a statement, Shnider said prosecutors are trained to avoid reflexively seeking the most punitive outcome in every case.

Photo via Google Maps

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