PROVIDENCE — Most of the COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted in all of Rhode Island’s courthouses by Sept. 7 under a new executive order issued Tuesday by the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell.
The move will mark a nearly complete return to regular business for the judiciary, a year and a half after the pandemic began. It could also lead to a more efficient way of operating the courts, using techniques borne of necessity during the shutdowns.
Suttell’s March 17, 2020, emergency order suspended the court calendars and closed the courthouses to all but emergency matters, and the court began easing back into in-person proceedings last summer.
The statewide grand jury was allowed to meet in May 2020, in an oversized room adapted for coronavirus restrictions. Bench trials resumed in June 2020. By late last year, two courtrooms were outfitted with plexiglass for jury trials, in preparation for defendants seeking a speedy trial. None did until this May, when a Westerly man was put on trial in a 2018 murder.
There are now a half-dozen jury trials booked in the two courtrooms being used during the pandemic, and as many booked into next June, said spokesman Craig Berke.
The pandemic forced the judiciary to adapt by holding remote arraignments and hearings to continue the courts’ business, and along the way, the judges discovered that using technology could be more efficient. The judges got their own YouTube channels and used the WebEx videoconferencing platform. Last August, Family Court Judge Michael B. Forte started Rhode Island’s first virtual “night court” to tackle a backlog of uncontested divorce cases.
So even when all of the courthouses are open and fully back in operation on Sept. 7, the chief justice is encouraging the courts to continue using more efficient means, Berke said.
Instead of the large calendars where lawyers and defendants all appear in court and wait for hours for their cases to be heard, the chief justice is telling the courts to schedule hearings for specific times and use afternoon sessions to limit crowding.
The new order will open all of the judicial buildings to the public, with some restrictions.
People will still have to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before walking into a courthouse, and may not enter if they have any symptoms. Fully vaccinated people will not be required to wear a mask, although judges may require people to be masked in their courtrooms. People who are not vaccinated will have to wear masks at all times and keep a three-foot distance from others.
People will be able to file court documents in-person by Sept. 7. The order encourages courts to continue setting up appointments for people coming in to pay fines.
The COVID-19 cleaning and the plexiglass used as barriers in the courtrooms will remain in place at least until Dec. 31.