For Miami, the civil trial was relatively routine: an insurance dispute over building damage caused by Hurricane Irma. It was also one of the first lengthy jury trials to be held in person as Miami-Dade courts began opening up after a long pandemic closure.
The trial ended in early July. But then, several lawyers and the judges who had taken part in the two-and-a-half week trial tested positive for COVID-19.
One of the attorneys, Brittany Quintana Martí, who is pregnant, fell ill enough that she spent five days in the hospital. “She had shortness of breath and fatigue. Really horrible fatigue. Her oxygen levels dropped,” said her husband, fellow Miami lawyer Jose Martí.
While Quintana was masked — she was waiting to get the vaccine because of her pregnancy — others were not. Her husband believes the coronavirus spread through numerous sidebars, the private meetings held between lawyers and the judge, away from jurors.
“That would make the most sense. That’s when everyone is as close as possible,” said Jose Martí, who added that he is upset because he believes the courts have not done enough to publicize outbreaks.
Nearly one month after Miami-Dade courts reopened to the public, Quintana’s story underscores that COVID-19 remains a risk within the justice system, especially as the delta variant of the highly contagious virus is causing a sharp rise in cases across Florida.
Last week alone, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office disclosed, seven employees were diagnosed with COVID-19. On Monday, the office announced three more employees had tested positive; that’s 17 total since courts reopened fully to the public on June 28.
Since that date, at least 19 Miami-Dade jail inmates have tested positive, according to county statistics; it’s unknown how many of those have physically been to court, although at least two were confirmed in the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building during the first week back.
That includes one Miami jail inmate who tested positive on the third day of trial for a case involving a drunk-driving car crash. The trial was delayed three weeks, and is expected to resume in the coming days.
The Miami-Dade clerk of courts office has also recorded 12 positive employees since the June 28 reopening.
“There has been a very steep increase in the last couple weeks,” said Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin. “I can’t mandate mask wearing but what I have done is send a strong recommendation to all my clerks that work in the building to wear one. People coming into the courthouse without masks present a risk for my employees. It makes common sense for us.”
South Florida, along with the rest of the state, has seen a steep rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, spurred by relaxed restrictions in public spaces, fewer people using masks and social distancing and pockets of unvaccinated people.
On Thursday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that Florida, along with Texas and Missouri, make up about 40 percent of COVID-19 cases in the country. “The challenge we have in Florida, and in far too many states, is we still don’t have vaccination rates high enough, and in some pockets, we have actually vaccination rates that are quite low,” Murthy said. “And the consequence of that is that COVID is now spreading very quickly in those populations. So that’s what concerns me.”
South Florida hospital administrators have reported that the vast majority of their patients admitted with COVID-19 are not vaccinated.
The spike, for now, has led to limited disruptions across Florida public spaces where members of the public mix with lawyers, police officers, clerks, security guards, judges, janitors and food-service workers. In the Seventh Circuit, which includes St. Johns, Putnam and Volusia counties, the chief judge briefly ordered in-person jury trials in those counties suspended in mid-July. A spike in COVID-19 cases at the Jacksonville jail led to the closure of some in-person hearings.
State courts across Miami-Dade County reopened 471 days after the Florida Supreme Court suspended jury trials and largely shut down facilities because of the pandemic. No masks or social distancing are required. Fewer hearings are being done on Zoom now.
So far, Miami-Dade court officials — consulting with health experts — say they are carefully watching COVID-19 positivity reports. So far, they don’t think they’ll have to close in-person hearings. Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, the newly installed 11th Circuit chief judge, noted that one criminal trial had to be halted in jury selection because a clerk tested positive.
But, she said, the reopening has largely been successful, with a number of trials already in the books.
“We have to continue with our business as best as we can,” Sayfie said in an interview.
In an email Sunday to all judges and court staffers, Sayfie stressed that while there are some “break-through” infections of vaccinated persons, the cases are mild and the overwhelming number of people in hospitals have not yet gotten the vaccine. She urged court personnel to get the vaccine because “that is clearly the only path to an end of this pandemic.”
“This latest spike in cases is entirely the result of people’s choices,” Sayfie wrote, adding: “In the meantime, I urge you all to wear masks. Our doctors in Miami have been recommending this consistently but now it is crucial. Whether you are vaccinated or not, please wear a mask when you are inside are court facilities. We cannot tell who is vaccinated and who isn’t. So please, everyone wear a mask.”
One bright spot: The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office says it has only recorded one case since the reopening, a lawyer who tested positive despite his vaccination. Public Defender Carlos Martinez said the lawyer didn’t have any major symptoms, and credits the vaccine with likely tamping down transmissions.
“All of the people he had interactions with — I think it was higher than 20 — got tested and everybody was negative,” said Martinez, who said he is encouraging personnel to wear masks and social distance.
There may be another, albeit unintended, limitation to public court gatherings. After the Surfside condo collapse, Miami-Dade County ordered the temporary closure of the historic civil courthouse because of issues of building safety. That’s the same courthouse where Quintana and the other attorneys had their trial and later tested positive for COVID-19.
Most civil hearings have moved back to Zoom, or are being held in other courthouses. In the Surfside condo collapse litigation, in-person hearings are now being held at the Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse. At a hearing this week, more than 50 people gathered in courtroom 10-1 — and only a couple wore masks.
Some lawyers, even those who are vaccinated, are increasingly nervous.
“When unmasked people get in an elevator, which happens every day at the courthouse, I’ve given up speaking to them. I just walk out,” said Miami defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein. “When courts opened I saw at least 50 to 75 percent of lawyers in court not wearing masks. You would think educated people would know better.”
One judge was dismayed that prospective and selected jurors, under state mandates, can’t be required to wear masks.
“There’s potential jurors coughing. Some are maskless and I’ve offered masks, and they say, ‘Thanks, I’m good,’ “ the judge told the Herald. “And I can’t require masks or ask if they’re vaccinated.”
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the uptick in positive cases is a “cause for concern.”
“The court has been quick and effective in addressing the cases that pop up, but it reminds us that this virus has no rules,” said Miami’s Jude Faccidomo, the FACDL president. “Prior to reopening, FACDL and the defense bar approached the court administration about using Zoom for all non-evidentiary matters. We believe it to be more functional and efficient. It is now, unfortunately, again an issue of safety.”
South Florida civil lawyer Todd Michaels is also urging people to remain vigilant.
Michaels finished a civil negligence trial — sans masks — earlier this month in Broward County. Then after a trip to New York City with his family, he returned to Miami and became ill with COVID-19, despite his vaccination.
He’s unsure whether he caught the virus in court because no one else there reported getting it.
“If this is COVID light, then I can’t imagine what regular COVID is like without the vaccination,” Michaels said. “I was up all night with the craziest chills I’d ever felt. The only way I could describe it was as if someone took out my internal organs and replaced them with ice blocks.”
Michaels admits he’d gotten a little too complacent in court.
“The message indeed is that this isn’t over,” Michaels said. “Even if you’re vaccinated, it’s going to prevent you from dying or going to the hospital. But the virus is still serious. And the delta variant is a game changer.”