In a little more than a month since judges, lawyers, plaintiffs and defendants started returning more regularly to the Regional Justice Center, at least 14 people who work at the courthouse have tested positive for COVID-19, according to information compiled by the Review-Journal.
Mirroring guidelines from Gov. Steve Sisolak, Chief Judge Linda Bell has crafted several orders to help those who enter the 17-story downtown building step carefully into the second phase of pandemic recovery.
While foot traffic at the courthouse remains a fraction of its average pace, Clark County’s first District Court jury trial since March is potentially weeks away, as the court system works to summon potential jurors and adhere to social distancing requirements.
On June 1, Las Vegas Justice Court, which operates in the same building, returned conducting more routine procedures, such as arraignments and preliminary hearings for defendants who are either out of custody or jailed, according to Chief Justice of the Peace Suzan Baucum.
Since then, Justice Court has reported five positive coronavirus cases, District Court has reported three cases, the Clark County public defender’s office has reported three cases and the district attorney’s office has reported five cases, but two of those employees do not work at the courthouse.
After an employee tests positive, the county’s Risk Management department is notified, and anyone with potential exposure to the infected person receives an email with a boilerplate message that includes information about ongoing “nightly enhanced cleaning efforts” at various offices.
”The Southern Nevada Health District is aware of the situation and will contact individuals directly if they are considered high risk,” the message states. “If you are not contacted directly, your risk of exposure is considered low.”
While bilingual social distancing placards are dotted throughout the courthouse, there’s a standing order that anyone who walks into the courthouse must wear a mask. It’s been a gradual transition, Bell said, even in a building with much a stricter dress code than nearby Fremont Street.
As early as April, Bell emailed the heads of several departments with offices at the courthouse, encouraging them to remind employees — “including lawyers and judges” — to don face coverings.
In an interview last month, Bell said the officials were “receptive to that concern.”
She added: “At the end of the day, it’s just about trying to keep people as safe as possible … It’s incredibly important for the court to have as much protection in place for everybody coming into the courthouse, because not everybody is choosing to be there the way you could choose to go to the mall.”
‘I do not feel safe’
The continuing spread of the virus throughout the valley was met with at least one concern about preventative measures at the courthouse.
In May, after two people in the district attorney’s office tested positive, an employee troubled by staff members gathering in groups without masks filed two anonymous complaints with the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The case was closed in mid-June after officials found that “the hazardous condition(s) no longer exist(s),” according to documents provided to the Review-Journal.
A spokeswoman with the state Department of Business and Industry said that no other coronavirus-related complaints linked to the offices of the public defender or district attorney had been filed.
But in follow-up emails to an OSHA compliance officer last week, the district attorney’s office employee expressed continued concerns, saying that mask wearing was “not enforced in back office areas,” even after a deputy prosecutor tested positive. The staff member also worried that enhanced cleaning measures were not taken and said a used masked had been distributed to workers.
“I do not feel safe nor do many of my coworkers,” one of the emails stated in part. “Many are afraid to come forward in fear of retaliation or just not knowing what to do. We are not safe or being protected in this current environment.”
It’s unclear if the case was reopened.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson did not respond to requests for comment.