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Covid case sets Grove Street Courthouse on edge

Employees and attorneys who work in the Grove Street Courthouse were anxious over the past few weeks after an employee in the district attorney's office tested positive for covid-19, officials and other people who work in the Grove Street facility said.

District Attorney Greg Newman confirmed on Monday that an employee in his office had tested positive and been sent home to quarantine for 14 days. He took recommended precautions, he said, and the employee has been cleared to return to work as early as this week. Newman, Clerk of Superior Court Tyler Ray and Resident Superior Court Judge Peter Knight all said they know of no second covid-19 infection among courthouse employees.
A courthouse employee who contacted the Hendersonville Lightning expressed concern that the situation was not handled with as much as openness and urgency as it should have been.
“If any of us were to test positive because of our exposure to (the person who was infected), it would not be her fault or the District Attorney’s fault,” the employee said. “But if we spread this virus to our loved ones because we were not informed and told to quarantine then it is their fault … I have never filed a complaint against a contemporary but I believe the public has the right to know this information and the workers in the judicial department have the right to a safe work place. I also believe that employees of the judicial system will be retaliated against if our names are mentioned.”
Resident Superior Court Judge Peter Knight said in response to the Lightning’s questions that he, Chief District Court Judge Mack Brittain and Ray have all taken precautions and imposed numerous restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus.
The courthouse employee who tested positive was identified by the person who contacted the Lightning and attorneys familiar with the situation as an assistant district attorney. Newman said an employee came to him and told him that she had been exposed to the coronavirus.
“I had a lady on my staff a couple weeks ago — her significant other became sick with the covid,” Newman said, adding that the boyfriend lives out of state. “When she found out about it, she self-quarantined. I told her to go get tested, and she was positive but was not sick. She followed the CDC guidelines, so everybody that would have had any potential exposure to her here at work has been tested. Everybody’s gotten great results.”
He said the employee is fine.
“She’s been cleared to come back,” he said. “I think we’re going to bring her back either this week or next week. I think everybody’s going to be fine.”
Newman said no one has issued a complaint to his office about the way the positive case was handled.
“All I know is I contacted our chief district court judge and talked to the clerk,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything to incite panic until we had results.” The employee identified “anybody that was potentially exposed,” he said, “and we got those people tested and it was fine. Her last day was on a Friday so the exposure was really limited because we’ve been running abbreviated dockets. I informed the people that needed to be informed and they could address it. … If I just made a blanket statement it would have shut the whole building down, which to me would have been completely unnecessary.”
Ray, the clerk of court, said he sought guidance from county Health Director Steve Smith as soon as he heard about the infection in the prosecutor's office.
“When I found out about it, I called the county health department and talked to my chief district court judge and got advice about how to proceed as far as open court was concerned,” he said. “And as far as I know I think everything at the courthouse is just fine at his point. There’s been some concern about it but the Health Department informed me there was no risk as far as the facility is concerned based on the information I had. I actually spoke with Steve Smith today just on a followup and he let me know they had thoroughly reviewed all the positive cases in May and there’s no risk to anyone here in the facility at this point.”
Asked about employees’ concerns that Newman failed to more broadly notify other personnel so contact tracing could begin, Ray said he was unaware of what the district attorney did.
“I’m satisfied that I made timely phone calls and I can’t speak for what he did and didn’t do," Ray said. "I made it known to my staff, at least those that might have been exposed, and we dealt with that appropriately. There was one person (in the clerk’s office) tested and that test was negative. The courthouse is a public building and I think unfortunately we’re probably exposed more frequently than we know.”
Judge Knight said state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley had imposed numerous restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus, and local judges have added to them.
“At present, all courtrooms and hearings rooms are marked as to seating locations which comply with CDC guidelines,” Knight said in an email. “Where a line may form, similar signage for appropriate standing distances is in place, and may be supplemented as the need arises. Courthouse security officers have been directed to inform persons of the requirements. Instructions confirming this protocol are posted throughout the courthouse, under signature of appropriate judges.”
Hand sanitizer is widely available, use of masks is encouraged and appropriate distancing is required, he added.
“Many other practical steps have been taken by Clerk of Superior Court Tyler Ray to reduce opportunities for virus transmission,” he said. “Chief District Court Judge Mack Brittain has likewise implemented new procedures in response to the current situation.”
As resident Superior Court judge, Knight has implemented safeguards that include:

• Criminal motions and pleas are scheduled by specific time, or block of time. This has been our practice since March.

• Civil motions are spaced over a period of days in order to limit the number of people in the courthouse at once or are heard remotely. “This practice is effective today, June 1, as we have not been permitted to hear motions in person heretofore since early March,” Knight said Monday. “WebEx secured software is approved by the Administrative Office of the Courts for hearing of motions remotely, which we have been doing since early March. Any participant to a motion may express their preference for a remote hearing of their matter, and the other parties will comply with such request and the court will hear from all participants remotely.”
“I am leaving the courtroom door open during session, to avoid the necessity of door handle use,” he said. Courtrooms, public areas and staff areas “are being thoroughly cleaned beyond the typical thorough cleaning. I will note that the County administration, as well as the Henderson County Health Department, have been very helpful to the courthouse staff in the implementation of safeguards.”