The Bronx Hall of Justice is temporarily suspending almost all in-person appearances starting Friday, November 6th because an interpreter and three court officers tested positive for COVID-19. The union for the officers contends that two of the cases were from attending a training program where masks were not required.

According to a memo obtained by Gothamist/WNYC, sent by Administrative Judge Julio Rodriguez, “all in-person court appearance (with limited exceptions) scheduled during the next two weeks in the HOJ will be suspended and converted, if possible, to virtual appearances.”

The memo said the temporary suspension was needed to limit the number of people in the building after four staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. It said one court officer was notified on Monday that she may have been exposed to COVID-19 at the Court Officers’ Academy during the week of October 26. It said she left the building upon notification and tested positive. Another officer who tested positive was last in the building on Wednesday.

Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Union, said he believes two of the Bronx officers, not one, attended the training session last week at the Brooklyn-based academy. He said a total of 40 officers were there for a day-long class on baton training and how to subdue an individual safely, which included one-on-one simulation exercises. 

“It involves people touching each other, the officers practice on each other,” he said. But he claimed masks weren't required.

“We stress everybody must wear a mask, why would you bring people in for training and then tell them to take their mask off?” he asked. 

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said the training was held in “a state of the art gymnasium with 30 foot ceilings and seating for 300.” He said officers were  “allowed to remove their masks when speaking while they were sitting at their seats which were more than appropriately distanced.”

But he said that “clearly was not a good idea.” 

Training classes for officers, which are held throughout the year, were suspended after the pandemic struck in the middle of March. Chalfen said no more classes will be held this year.

He said the Bronx staffers who tested positive will be quarantining for two weeks. However, he said there was no need to require that of other staffers, or other court officers who attended the training class.

Quirk said all officers in the class were notified this week about someone testing positive, but said they were not required to get COVID-19 tests before returning to work. He said the tests should be required because they work in courts throughout the city.

“This virus is a very deadly virus,” he said, “and when somebody comes down with it they need to do deep cleaning and contact tracing.”

Quirk’s union is suing the court system because it claims its members weren’t given adequate safety supplies during the pandemic. Three city court officers died of COVID-19 and more than 100 were sickened.

The state’s court system gradually reopened in phases over the summer. Arraignments are still being held by video, but grand juries only resumed in New York City in August. Those who work in the courts have complained about not feeling completely safe from the virus inside the courts.

Though most in-person appearances are on hold for two weeks at the Bronx Hall of Justice, which is home to criminal courts and State Supreme Court, the building will remain open for grand juries and for incarcerated defendants who need to appear in court. The Office of Court Administration said a jury trial that was supposed to have started on Wednesday, November 4th was already postponed so as not to increase foot traffic in the courthouse. 

The administrative judge’s memo said he hoped the defense bar and the district attorney’s office would cooperate to reduce unnecessary appearances when defendants are arrested and can’t be held in jail if there isn’t either a preliminary hearing before a judge or a grand jury indictment within 5 days.

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering immigration, courts, and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.