Judge orders 14th District courts to return to all-virtual format

Routt County Justice Center. l John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

Citing a concern of increasing COVID-19 cases and stagnating vaccine rates in Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, 14th District Chief Judge Michael O’Hara issued an order Friday directing court proceedings to return to a completely virtual format unless otherwise directed by a judge in very special circumstances. The order applies to all courts in each of the three counties.

Because jury trials cannot be held remotely, the order also puts a moratorium on jury trials until the order is further modified. O’Hara said he and his senior staff will review the order each week and adjust it according to local COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and vaccine rates in the district’s three counties.

O’Hara said he was particularly concerned about the new variants of the virus, including the delta, mu and lambda, which are resulting in increased infection rates and contributing to significant community spread of the virus, regardless of vaccination status.

As of Friday’s order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rated all three counties in the 14th District as having high rates of transmission, the highest risk category. None of the three counties currently have mask mandates or other public health orders in place.

“As safety is of the utmost concern for all staff, I am taking into consideration several important factors in entering this emergency Chief Judge Order, particularly the vaccination rates, positivity rates and risk of transmission in each county in the 14th Judicial District,” O’Hara wrote in the order.

The positivity rate for Routt County is at 10%, Grand County is at 18%, and Moffat County is at 25%, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. All of these numbers have been increasing over the past two weeks, O’Hara wrote in his order.

In Routt County, the percentage of eligible residents who are fully vaccinated is 67%, 55% in Grand County and 35% Moffat, according to the New York Times COVID-19 database, which tracks COVID-19 cases, deaths, hospitalizations and vaccination rates in each county across the U.S.

On Sept. 15, the Craig Daily Press reported that Moffat County had the highest percentage increase of new COVID-19 cases in the prior two weeks of every county in the U.S. at 760%.

“We are overwhelmed,” Memorial Regional Hospital Medical Director Dr. Matthew Grzegozewski told the Craig Press. “It’s not just the emergency department but at rapid care, too. Our typical volume is maybe 30 to 40 patients a day. Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, we saw 98.

“Our staff is exhausted, and it’s difficult to have a constant stream of people that are coming in with the same complaint,” Grzegozewski continued. “As a hospital, I feel we’re doing our best to get the message out, that this is preventable, we have steps we can take, and it feels like we’re screaming into the wind.”

O’Hara said while he was already considering tighter restrictions, the Craig Press article helped motivate his decision.

“Not surprisingly, as a result of that article, the courts are now seeing requests from attorneys to continue cases to avoid coming to court at this time for safety reasons,” O’Hara said.

In addition to virtual proceedings, the order states that members of the public are prohibited from entering the district court and probation facilities, and all hearings will be conducted on WebEx.

Probation clients should follow their probation officers’ reporting instructions.

If a party is unable to appear by WebEx because they have no access to a telephone or a computer, they should appear at the court facility and advise security staff of the problem, and staff will assist them, the order states.

The order goes into effect Monday and does not have an end date.

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