Officials with Virginia courts and state bar groups were keeping a wary eye on developments as preparations intensified to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
As of March 12, 15 people in Virginia had tested positive for the virus, according to state officials, and colleges and universities were announcing plans for remote classes.
As of that day, there had been no changes to scheduled events for the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary, according to a court spokesperson.
“We are not aware of any changes or actions taken by local courts,” the spokesperson said.
The court posts notices of local court closures or delays on the website of Virginia’s Judicial System. As of March 12, no notices of any schedule changes had appeared. Circuit court clerks, who are independent of the court system, may also post notices on their own websites or those of local governments, the Supreme Court said.
“The Chief Justice and the Office of the Executive Secretary take very seriously the health and safety of judicial branch employees and the public they serve. While encouraging the courts to be prepared with a plan and to take steps to reduce the spread of the virus (COVID-19), it is important that the public continues to have access to magistrates and the courts,” the court’s statement said.
The governor declared a state of emergency on March 12, announcing the cancellation of some scheduled conferences and a 30-day travel freeze for many state employees.
“We are planning for every scenario and ensuring that our government agencies, our schools, our hospitals and our Commonwealth are prepared thoroughly and able to respond quickly,” said Gov. Ralph Northam on March 11.
Those preparations included planning for how state employees could work remotely and how schools could implement distance learning, officials said. Nursing homes were being urged to rethink visitor screening and patient monitoring policies, and the state had placed an order for about $3 million of personal protective equipment.
At the Virginia State Bar, no events had been cancelled as of March 11.
“We are watching developments closely,” said Executive Director Karen Gould.
“I have asked the staff, particularly those who are or will be traveling, to self monitor and if they suspect they have come in contact with someone who has the virus to ‘social distance’ themselves by staying at home for the 14-day observation period,” Gould said. “Many of us but not all can telecommute if necessary but hopefully we won’t get to that point,” she added.
The Virginia Bar Association said only one event on its schedule of meetings had been changed as of March 11. A bankruptcy law conference scheduled for May 7-8 will instead be Oct. 1-2.
Eleven other events remained on the VBA calendar through April.
“Should the situation become potentially more worrisome to hold in-person events, registrants will be informed and notices will appear on the VBA homepage under News and on individual event webpages,” said a March 11 statement from the VBA.
The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association was making preparations for its annual convention March 26-29 at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. The hotel has hired additional staff exclusively to continually disinfect all public areas such as doorknobs, handrails, elevator buttons, the VTLA said. Hand sanitizer would be widely available throughout the hotel and at all dining facilities, the group said.
In addition, the meeting space would be spread out to provide much more social space between seats, the VTLA said.
The Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys planned to proceed with a March 13 expert witness workshop at the University of Richmond.
“We don’t plan to cancel any of our March events at this time and we are ensuring that we have adequate space to avoid close quarters at these upcoming events,” said VADA executive director Sherma Mather. “We are also following protocols such as discouraging handshaking and having plenty of hand sanitizer available. With any catered events we are also verifying that they have safety protocols in place to avoid spreading the possibility of any contagion,” Mather said.
The VADA planned to go ahead with a 5K run with the VTLA in Richmond on March 21.
“This race is still on and we will verify the status as we get closer to that date,” Mather said.
Court preparations are largely decentralized. Local courts have been encouraged to have their own continuity of operations plans, the Supreme Court spokesperson said.
There are resources. The Virginia Courthouse Security & Preparedness Programs Manual and the Pandemic Influenza Bench Book for Virginia’s Court System have been available to the courts.
The pandemic influenza document provides a template for courts to plan for disease control. The bench book was originally developed in 2010 and updated in 2017.
“A lot of work went into it. We had staff and judges from around the state,” said retired Circuit Judge Westbrook J. Parker, who chaired the 2010 commission.
Karl Hade, the Supreme Court’s administrative chief, is a member of the Governor’s COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Task Force and receives regular briefings from the Virginia Office of Emergency Preparedness.