The arrival of COVID-19 put a halt to fun things like travel plans, birthday parties, weddings and graduations. COVID-19 also halted some not-so-fun things like jury duty and court appearances. But as we enter summer, the City of Houston Municipal Courts Department is back to settling disputes and resolving cases.
Just as with businesses everywhere, though, a return to the docket at city court facilities includes modifications that just six months ago would’ve been peculiar or unthinkable: things like sneeze guards, COVID-19 exposure questions, temperature checks, and no jury trials until at least September.
There’s no doubt MCD employees are feeling the effects of the pandemic and, like many companies and businesses across the country, are also requiring masks and social distancing inside the building. Social distancing is especially tricky because it requires space. But even before the pandemic, MCD was already facing limited space in its main building at 1400 Lubbock St., because of damage to the basement during Harvey, as well as staffing shortages, and encouraging defendants to appear.
Some of those same challenges have been magnified in direct correlation to the pandemic: The limited available space before is even further restricted in effort to adhere to social distancing rules, and previously, employees with a fever would normally still report to work and perform as expected. Because of the possibility of an exposure to COVID-19, however, employees with a temperature of 100.4 would now have to stay home, even if they don’t feel sick.
Due to this required quarantine, the availability of staff has shrunk even more. Also, if defendants didn’t have a legitimate reason to not appear before, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is considered a legitimate concern, thus making it more difficult to reconcile cases.
Rounding out MCD’s top five current challenges are keeping court buildings clean, keeping the staff and public safe, and handling the backlog of cases set for dockets since March through July due to COVID-19 suspensions.
For all the headaches the pandemic has caused, though, the new practices have helped MCD get back to business.
While the sneeze guards, COVID questions, temperature checks, masks and social distancing offer a reprieve from a healthcare standpoint, “more Microsoft Teams meetings when possible and the absence of jury trials until September,” are two recent, positive additions to current standard operating procedures shared by Clerk of the Court Greg Prier.
Little things often overlooked before — like cleaning door handles, chairs, and other areas in the building — has taken on a new meaning. MCD has made special accommodations for those who must attend court but are at high risk.
It’s a new normal perhaps, but staff are also looking at this time as “an opportunity to be more creative and look to be innovative in how we conduct our business,” said Bonita Tolbert, MCD public information officer.