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With a third wave of COVID-19 cases surging, the Tennessee Supreme Court has issued an order extending its state of emergency and reiterated its mask mandate, something that Hamilton County court officials say is being followed closely.

In its Nov. 17 order, justices cited a "number of reports" across the state of noncompliance with courts' plans for holding in-person proceedings, including some instances in which attorneys or litigants appeared in open court after having tested positive for COVID-19, as one of its reasons for extending the state of emergency.

As far back as April, each judicial district was required to submit a comprehensive plan to gradually begin in-person proceedings after the high court temporarily suspended most in-person proceedings in early March.

Here in Hamilton County, the health department has notified the public at least three times of possible COVID-19 exposures at county courthouses since the pandemic began, with the last two notices coming just this month.

The latest came on Nov. 20 and included the Market Street courthouse. In that case, the infected person had been in General Sessions Judge Gerald Webb's courtroom between 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 19.

Before that, a notice was sent on Nov. 10 that included the Market Street and Georgia Avenue courthouses, as well as the Superior Court of Catoosa County and the Bank of America on Gunbarrel Road. An infected person spent time at those locations on Nov. 2 and 3. No other information was provided.

And before that, the health department issued a notice on July 3 about a possible exposure at the Georgia Avenue courthouse between June 24 and July 2.

Due to those kinds of reports and the steep increase in COVID-19 cases, the state supreme court, in its order, issued a wake-up call to judges, stating it "considers it necessary to take additional steps to protect all participants in the judicial system and the public at large."

With that, it suspended all jury trials through Jan. 31, subject to certain exceptions that would be granted on a case-by-case basis.

The high court also reiterated its mask mandate, stating that the order "remains in full force and effect and continues to apply to all persons who enter the courthouse for court-related business." Judges and attorneys "have an ethical obligation to strictly adhere" to their local court's plan as well as the supreme court's orders while they're in effect.

It also stressed its existing order to conduct all court proceedings via video or telephone conferencing when possible.

Here locally, some judges have said they have been working to ensure compliance with the order and often confer with each other about ways to more effectively implement it. Others did not respond to a request for comment from the Times Free Press.

"I am fairly strict when it comes to my courtroom. I don't let witnesses or defendants inside unless their case is called," General Sessions Judge Alexander McVeagh said by email. "I keep fairly close eyes on everyone inside to ensure the supreme court order is followed."

Similarly, Judge Lila Statom said everyone in her courtroom wears masks and she has not had any issues with non-compliance.

The Hamilton County District Attorney's Office has said it tries to follow all local, state and federal guidelines "to safeguard everyone's well-being" but that it does "not have the capability or desire to monitor every [prosecutor] during every court appearance," and it relies on judges to raise mask-wearing concerns.

No judges have raised the issue to the DA's office or to the Times Free Press.

At least one prosecutor has been seen multiple times on different occasions either intermittently taking his mask off or lowering it, not wearing a mask at all or wearing one only below the chin while in the courtroom and at least once before a judge, though it's not clear for how long. The DA's office said it received one complaint about the prosecutor several weeks ago.

Upon receiving the complaint, DA's office administrators spoke with the prosecutor about the mask issue, and he "assured us that he has no problem with wearing a mask," DA spokesperson Bruce Garner said in an email.

"He said he has been wearing the neck gaiter type of mask and that because of how it fits, it would sometimes slide down his face while communicating," Garner said.

As with all prosecutors, Garner said the prosecutor in question "is focused on the substance of his communication with members of the court and pulls it back up when he becomes aware that the mask has slipped down.

"On occasion, he says, he may intentionally pull the mask down to yell over the balcony in the multi-story courts building at someone some distance away, because he couldn't be heard otherwise."

According to Garner, to allay concerns, the prosecutor "is switching to a more traditional mask for his work in court."

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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