Fla. Courts Can Begin Lifting Mask, Distancing Requirements

Florida courts can begin lifting mask and social distancing requirements but should continue to hold proceedings remotely so courthouse resources can be devoted to holding jury trials, according to a new order issued Friday.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady said courts in the state can begin dropping the mask and distancing requirements in courtrooms as soon as June 21 and no later than Aug. 2, thanks to the availability of effective vaccines for persons age 12 and up.

"Given these developments, the judicial branch can now transition to operations where in-person contact is more broadly authorized," Justice Canady said.

But he extended the emergency authority for remote proceedings so courts can focus their in-person resources on jury trials, in particular criminal jury trials.

Justice Canady also set dates to end the suspension of speedy trial procedures in criminal cases. These speedy trial provisions will resume Oct. 4 for adult defendants taken into custody before March 14, 2020, and for all juvenile defendants. They will resume Jan. 3 for adult defendants arrested after March 14, 2020, according to the order.

Other temporary measures allowing witnesses to be sworn in remotely via video and oral argument to be conducted remotely were extended in the order.

The chief justice first halted jury trials and encouraged remote proceedings in a March 13, 2020, order issued at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the first time a limit on face-to-face proceedings was ordered in Florida since 1972, when the state's court system was first unified.

Since then, the courts have shifted proceedings almost entirely online. In 2020, more than 1,700 Zoom licenses were installed for judges, court officers and staff, and more than 400,000 Zoom hearings were held involving 2.6 million participants in the state, according to the Supreme Court. With those tools, Florida trial courts have been able to stay on track to dispose of 2.8 million cases in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

In April, the Supreme Court announced expanded and streamlined public access to remote state court proceedings through the Virtual Courtroom Directory, a website where users can find virtual hearings as well as livestreams of in-person trials and oral arguments.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Stephen Berg.


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