Even as more local governments begin moving to remote work, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has asked judges to keep courts open for emergency matters – while encouraging them to reduce bonds, stay eviction proceedings and release high-risk people from jails.
As of Thursday, the Ohio Department of Health reports 119 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 24 counties. Of those, 33 people have been hospitalized.
Speaking at the DeWine administration's daily press conference, O'Connor says she told courts they may close to the public for "non-essential purposes," reduce jury pools and use technology to replace face-to-face interactions.
"I urge all judges to grant continuances or use alternate methods for non-essential court appearances," O'Connor says, explaining that minimizing bonds will help lower the jail population.
She also announced the Ohio Supreme Court will release $4 million in grants for courts to obtain video conferencing equipment.
Rather than issuing a binding declaration that all judges are required to follow, O'Connor clarified that she's instead offering recommendations - some of which are already being enacted by local and federal court systems.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost issued an opinion this week advising courts to suspend jury trials for up to 270 days, saying that coronavirus poses a health risk for jurors, court personnel and defendants. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio has already done so.
While O'Connor suggests judges hold off from eviction and foreclosure proceedings, she says that some cases – notably domestic violence situations – may still need to be dealt with by local courts.
The Franklin County Municipal Court on Monday delayed all scheduled hearings, and announced that eviction and small claims cases would not be heard for at least three weeks.
On Wednesday, the ACLU of Ohio issued an open letter calling on the state to take preventative measures within the criminal justice system.
"As more public and private actors take drastic steps to combat this pandemic, we urge stakeholders and decision makers to develop and implement holistic policies that align with guidance from public health experts and that will minimize the harm inflicted on people involved in the criminal legal system – and, by extension, the harm inflicted on broader communities," the letter reads.
Among their recommendations are to dramatically reduce the number of arrests, limit the number of people held in jails, and release inmates who are among the highest-risk populations.
The last point is one that O'Connor herself urged, saying it would allow other inmates to stay safe while high-risk individuals can isolate themselves outside the jail.
"An assessment should be done to determine whether or not they can safely be released given the fact of their age and maybe other health conditions that they might have," O'Connor says.
The Ohio Department of Health makes the following recommendations to protect yourself from illness:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; dry hands with a clean towel or air dry hands.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are unavailable.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve when sneezing or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick.
Ohio's coronavirus call center is open to answer questions from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The hotline number is 1-833-4-ASK-ODH or 1-833-427-5634. More information is available at coronavirus.ohio.gov.