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Wood County officials discuss reopening court amid COVID-19

PARKERSBURG — Wood County officials are getting ready for the county’s circuit court to resume trials in July, just as COVID-19 infections are starting to see a rise again.

The Wood County Commission discussed how the courts would be opened after receiving guidance on the matter from the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The court issued guidelines last Friday for judges and circuit clerks to use to protect the health and safety of employees, litigants, witnesses, jurors, attorneys and the public.

All trial participants will be required to wear masks or face-coverings in courtrooms and related facilities. Social distancing will be strictly enforced, the Supreme Court said.

Those with COVID-19 symptoms or those with a suspected contact with someone with the virus will not be permitted to enter judicial buildings.

People around others who might have been infected, including health care workers, or vulnerable individuals, might be excused from jury duty.

Exceptions to jury service must be approved on a case-by-case basis by the judge presiding over the trial.

County officials feel the traditional courtrooms in the Holmes Shaver Judicial Annex will not be able to adequately hold a trial while still adhering to recommendations from health officials so alternative sites will have to be found.

The Wood County Commission will have to vote to designate a space to be used as a court for a jury trial.

The Boreman Room at the Judge Black Annex was recently used to conduct the most recent session of the grand jury proceedings.

“It worked really well for grand jury,” said Wood County Prosecutor Pat Lefebure. “I am sure it can be enabled for a jury trial also.”

There will have to be some adjustments made in how witnesses will be brought in and whether the room would be used for jury deliberations by clearing out everyone else when the time came.

Lefebure said witnesses could be seated somewhere in the prosecutor’s office, which is in the same building, and a bailiff can be radioed when they are needed and escorted over.

“It will certainly be a learning process at first,” Lefebure said.

Court officials said jury trials are set to begin around July 14.

Wood County Circuit Clerk Celeste Ridgeway brought up the point that they may have more than one trial occurring at one time.

Officials talked about other possible venues that could hold a trial, including city council chambers at the Parkersburg City Building, the Smoot Theatre, meeting rooms at the Blennerhassett Hotel and other locations. Officials have not checked with the people in charge of those venues yet to see if it would be possible.

“No matter what we do there are going to be issues and problems,” Lefebure said. “Nothing is going to be perfect. We will have to make due.”

County officials admitted that city officials may not want a lot of people in their building for a trial and they would have to look into that.

Money might be available from the state or federal government to rent space or clean spaces, as part of the COVID-19 response to keep government operations functioning.

Lefebure said there are four murder trials that were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first one is scheduled to take place in late August with the others through the fall.

Commission President Blair Couch said he believes a lot of places will be dealing with certain challenges as they try to resume court proceedings.

“We can’t be the sole location that is having problems,” he said. “I know other jurisdictions will be more challenged than us. It will be interesting to see what others have to deal with.

“We want the wheels of justice to move quickly. That reduces our jail bill. Anything that delays it, increases it. Everyone has a right to a speedy and fair trial.”

In other business, officials discussed the increase of 15 new COVID-19 cases in Wood County since last Thursday that was announced by the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department.

“We are concerned that numerous jurisdictions have opened up their communities, specifically vacation destinations,” Couch said of many people traveling to Myrtle Beach, S.C. and other popular destinations.

Recent increases seem to be from people who travelled out of the area or have come into the area, officials said.

Officials talked about improvements in testing where people can know within a couple of hours if they are positive, based on testing that is happening around the community.

The labs at local hospitals are better prepared, Couch said.

The health department has seen two instances of people who have brought it back to the area from other places, like Myrtle Beach, and now the area is seeing more cases, Couch said.

“We can encourage people who have traveled to get tested,” he said.

Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens said some recommendations suggest people wait a couple of days after returning from a trip to be tested due to the incubation period.

Couch said different tests have a varied success rate and additional tests might be needed.

Currently there are no plans in place for the commission or the health department to start ordering mandatory wearing of facemasks in public.

“We don’t know if we have that authority,” Couch said.

Couch said he has been contacted by concerned citizens about the facemask issue.

“I am unaware if the governor’s office gives counties authority to mandate facial coverings,” he said.

He has contacted officials at the health department about the issue and if it makes sense for this area to do so with the additional cases and how they believe it is being spread in the (Mid-Ohio) Valley. He is still awaiting an answer, he said.

Contact Brett Dunlap at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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