MENDOCINO Co., 11/11/20 — Transportation of a teenager to juvenile hall in Ukiah led to five COVID-19 positive cases in the Mendocino County justice system, but was not the cause for the closing of the two local courthouses this week. Though speculation has been rampant two local department leaders confirmed that the two incidents were in fact unrelated.
Izen Locatelli, chief probation officer of Mendocino County, and Mendocino Superior Court Executive Officer Kim Turner said the cases that hit their departments last week were separate incidents, without any known connection.
Sarah Duckett, county public information officer, confirmed the court and juvenile hall outbreaks are considered unrelated. The county health department found no connection, despite the cases happening in the same timeframe.
One incident resulted in closure of both the Ukiah and Fort Bragg courthouses for this entire week after an employee tested positive. The other included five positive cases among county juvenile probation and juvenile hall staff.
On Oct. 30, two probation officers traveled out of the area to pick up a teenager for return to juvenile hall. The two juvenile probation officers who transported the teen became symptomatic and tested positive for COVID-19. The teenager, who was asymptomatic, was also tested and came back positive on Nov. 4., Locatelli said. Three staff members at juvenile hall also tested positive. Outbreak testing, quarantines and isolating followed. He said no other residents of juvenile hall have tested positive, nor have there been any other cases among staff since last week, Locatelli said. The probation department continues to see clients, Locatelli said. Other than medical and psychiatric personnel visits, juvenile hall had already been mostly closed off outside interaction due to COVID-19.
Also last week, a court employee tested positive, resulting in contract tracing and a decision process that started Friday and culminated with a Sunday announcement that the courts would be closed for the entire week — starting the next day. About a dozen other employees were tested and are in self-quarantine until results come back.
On Sunday evening, Presiding Judge Ann C. Moorman issued an emergency order, closing the Mendocino County Superior Court for the week of Nov. 9 through Nov. 13. The Fort Bragg Courthouse was closed for the week along with Ukiah. Turner said that some employees go back and forth between Fort Bragg and Ukiah.
“Out of an abundance of caution we closed both courthouses,” said Turner.
“In consultation with the Mendocino Public Health Department and in accordance with guidelines provided by that office, the Court has closed to protect the health and safety of all court visitors, justice partners and court staff. Any court staff with potential exposure to COVID-19 positive individuals have been instructed to test and quarantine. The Court will reopen to the public on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020,” a press release issued Sunday by Mendocino County Courts on Sunday stated.
Court closures are very rare, requiring difficult rescheduling of the linked spiderweb of court cases. Turner said the safety of all those who use and work at the courts had to be paramount. The courts were also closed last year, 2019, for three days Oct. 28, 29, 30, 2019, during planned power shut-offs, Turner remembers. “Closing the courts is extremely rare. We always want to leave the courthouse doors open,” she said.
“The last two years have been the most challenging ever.”
Reopening will be a big challenge. People are encouraged to call their attorney to find out about the scheduling of their cases.
“It’s quite an undertaking. We did it with the [public safety power shutoff]. My staff is amazing. We will get everything together and be ready for Monday morning,” Turner said.
Because the public entrances to the main courthouse in Ukiah and the Fort Bragg court are closed this week, anybody with urgent business with the district attorney or his staff should call the DA’s main reception in Ukiah at 707.463.4211 and schedule an appointment time, to include an escort into the DA’s offices.
District Attorney David Eyster said his office operations including the Victim-Witness offices in Ukiah and Fort Bragg will remain open as much as possible during the week-long court closure. Everything was already to be closed on Wednesday for the Veterans Day holiday.
“If there is an urgent need, the DA’s office will meet it,” Eyster said.
Mendocino County Public Defender Jeffrey Aaron said his office is staffed and seeing clients and ready to get back to work next week.
At the beginning of the COVID crisis in March, jury trials and misdemeanor appearances were delayed into June, but this time all public activities of the court have stopped.