Prospective jurors will no longer be summoned to court next week for criminal or civil trials in New York, as COVID-19 cases are increasingly popping up in courthouses. In New York City alone, 11 people who work in 11 different court buildings have tested positive for the coronavirus since Monday, according to the state's Office of Court Administration.

The latest data from OCA shows court employees and visitors from Long Island to Buffalo have been testing positive. The Bronx criminal court building limited in-person operations last week after four staffers tested positive for the virus.

The OCA’s spokesman, Lucian Chalfen, said the decision to suspend new juries was made “In light of advice from our epidemiologist and Governor Cuomo’s most recent directives concerning limiting congregation of groups of people in public and private locations.”

He said pending criminal and civil jury trials “will continue to conclusion,” as well as bench trials by judges. Sitting grand juries will continue to hear cases but no new ones will be empaneled. And new bench trials and hearings will be conducted virtually, unless otherwise authorized. 

The OCA website says all cleaning protocols were followed at affected buildings and notifications are still being made to those who had contact with the staffers who tested positive. Nine of the New York City cases involve court employees; two work in the Manhattan and Queens District Attorney’s offices.

The affected courts include Queens County Family Court, Kings County Supreme Court, and Bronx Housing Court. 

Listen to Bert Fertig report on the new court measures on WNYC:

Court employees and lawyers who work in the buildings have been sounding the alarm about safety concerns ever since the courts gradually started reopening over the summer. Slowing down court operations, they said, was inevitable.

“They tried to come back too soon with too many employees and too much of the public in the building at one time,” said Glenn D’Amato, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association.

Both D’Amato and Patrick Cullen, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, said some of their members were among those testing positive recently. They also said not enough plexiglass dividers had been installed in the courts. 

“It wasn't installed well in all places,” said Cullen, referring specifically to lobbies where his members work. 

D’Amato suggested the courts shut down in-person operations completely for a couple of days to ensure everything is installed properly. 

The unions claim OCA has thwarted efforts to work together to make the buildings safer, such as allowing their own experts to tour the courts. Cullen also reiterated his call for the court system to regularly test employees on site. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York City’s public schools will close if the city’s COVID-19 positivity hits 3% which could happen as soon as Monday. When asked if there’s any such threshold for limiting court operations further, Chalfen replied, “Common sense.”

“As conditions change, we of course, will revisit the situation,” he added.

He also insisted the courts $1 million in plexiglas in public areas, X-ray machines and courtrooms. 

Courts provide essential functions and cannot close completely. Arraignments continued to be held by video throughout the pandemic.

Linda Hoff, deputy managing director of the criminal practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, said the courts have allowed too many in-person appearances with people out on bail that aren’t necessary. “I am not convinced at all that the practices they put in place ensure the safety of our clients, our lawyers, and of their own staff,” she said, adding that she’s seen “non-compliance with mask wearing and non-compliance with social distancing” in crowded hallways outside courtrooms, even with limited capacity. 

Hoff called for more remote appearances whenever possible. “We have been very successful in doing virtual appearances and virtual case conferences,” she said, from misdemeanors to felonies. 

But she warned against winding down courthouse operations to what they resembled in March, when almost everything froze, because that will force defendants to wait in jail even longer (though the city later allowed many out due to health concerns). Public defenders say the rising density in city jails is already a risk for COVID-19.

“We have to be very cognizant if somebody is sitting in jail, we can’t just halt the criminal justice system,” she explained. “You can’t have somebody sitting in jail with no hope or prospect of hope when their case is going to proceed.”

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