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Cook County court reports hundreds of Covid-19 cases among judges, staffers

As 2021 ends, the Cook County Circuit Court reported that nearly 600 of its employees, including dozens of judges, have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began.

CHICAGO (CN) — 2021 comes to a close as the spread of Covid-19 reaches record highs across the country, and Cook County is no different.

Thursday held the dubious honor of being the day with the single most recorded new cases in Illinois since the pandemic began. Some 30,000 new cases were reported statewide, including 87 deaths. Chicago alone reported more than 3,770 cases and 11 deaths.

The Cook County Circuit Court system has not been spared from the spike. The Office of Chief Judge Timothy Evans reported Thursday that 598 employees have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020, including 17 on Thursday. Thirty-six county judges have also tested positive, most recently two judges on Wednesday.

Evans' office refused to release data on how many court employees have died as a result of the virus, though it did suggest that some employees have tested positive more than once.

"While some employees may have tested positive more than once, they are only counted once in the total," a statement from Evans' office read.

The Cook County court system is physically disparate; its courthouses and administrative buildings are spread throughout both Chicago and the county's so-called satellite suburbs. This makes infection in public-facing court employees all the more dangerous, as those employees interact with residents across the county and beyond. In response, the court, along with city, state, and federal governments, have initiated numerous strategies to attempt to halt the virus' spread.

Beginning in March 2020, the county began holding all hearings except jury trials with teleconferencing technology; it also established public "Zoom rooms" in its courthouses as well as in Cook County Jail for litigants who lacked access to teleconferencing tools at home. By a court order in July of 2020, all traffic court proceedings also began being carried out exclusively via Zoom calls. Though the court used teleconferencing in a limited capacity prior to 2020, Evans' office said the pandemic prompted its widespread implementation.

"Some teleconferencing was used before, but with the pandemic it was introduced into 400 courtrooms," said Mary Wisniewski, director of communications for the Office of the Chief Judge.

Local federal courts have likewise been forced to adapt to the pandemic. Chief U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer of the Northern District of Illinois issued a general order in March 2020 rescheduling all concurrent civil hearings and extending all civil court deadlines by close to a month. This order was amended and reissued 10 times, with the final version of the order released in February 2021. The Seventh Circuit also adapted, starting a YouTube channel in March of 2020 through which it now livestreams all of its oral argument hearings for the public.

The County Clerk's Office also stepped up the use of its online services at the start of the pandemic, when County President Toni Preckwinkle issued Executive Order 2020-3 limiting public access to county facilities. Its transition into more digital operations hasn't been seamless. One paralegal named Rafael Cruz who works in the Daley Center, the Cook County court system's headquarters, said that the reduced number of employees in the clerk's office was hampering its ability to function.

"Their system isn't functioning properly... there's not enough people to handle the e-filing system," Cruz said.

Cruz' appraisal mirrors the experience of one county resident present in the Daley Center on Thursday who asked to remain anonymous. She said the court's embrace of more digital services left her own case falling through the cracks. She reported getting pulled over by police multiple times in 2020 for driving on an expired license, despite getting her license renewed in 2019. She attributed this to the clerk's office losing her digitally-filed license renewal paperwork in the opening days of the pandemic.

"It happened like three or four times," she said. "I had to come up [to the Daley Center] and get everything sorted out... Nothing got sent over to the Secretary of State's Office."

Besides technical issues, the courts have also experienced issues in balancing people's right to legal services with the physical logistics of pandemic prevention.

Since March 2020 the county court system has instituted stricter occupancy limits on courtrooms and other facilities, along with social distancing requirements. Some courtrooms in the Daley Center have been converted into jury waiting rooms to accommodate the extra space necessary to meet these requirements, and smaller courtrooms have been converted into observation rooms for trials whose audiences exceed those occupancy limits.

These occupancy issues came to a head during the Jussie Smollett trial, which was held in a courtroom in the county criminal courthouse with a maximum occupancy of 52 people. The jury, court officials, press and high number of Smollett family and associates in attendance collectively exceeded that limit by double digits, leading to fights over who would be allowed in the courtroom and who would be forced to leave. At one point bailiffs attempted to seat press on folding chairs clustered at the entrances of the room, which - as some reporters pointed out - violated both the court system's social distancing requirement and the Chicago fire code.

It was only after several press members threatened lawsuits against the court that sheriff deputies converted a smaller courtroom into a remote observation room, with the trial being broadcast via a private Zoom call to the room.

Other employees of the court system, the enforcers of these policies, reported their own frustrations. One security guard working in the Daley Center on Thursday said she wished there were fewer people working in the building, citing how in just the last week 14 Daley Center employees tested positive for Covid-19 infection.

Cruz, on the other hand, said he missed the days when the county court system was less remoted and had more of its people physically present in the offices. Not for any work reasons, he just missed his work colleagues.

"I miss coming [to the Daley Center]," Cruz said. "I had good relationships with people on the sixth floor."

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