The 13th Judicial Circuit, which presides over Hillsborough County, suspended all in-person court appearances, transfer of inmates from jail to the courthouse and all trials on January 5, 2021, due to recent spikes in COVID-19 positivity rates. With this service change, the circuit court will continue operating under phased operations, allowing the courthouse to be available to the public. Any already scheduled in-person hearings will be able to go online to check their case records.
Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, who oversees the circuit court of Hillsborough County, expects this moratorium to remain in effect until March 2021, though many cases will still process these matters virtually.
Impact of COVID-19 on Tampa Area Court Cases
Many court appearances in the Tampa area of Hillsborough Courts have been conducted virtually since the onset of the pandemic. Status checks, motion, and first appearances had all transitioned to online formats, though adjudication of cases in civil and jury trials are getting impacted.
Courtrooms in Tampa and other Florida courtrooms face major challenges observing CDC guidelines to ensure minimal exposure of the public and judiciary staff to this dangerous disease. Many courtrooms throughout the United States do not have the necessary space in hallways and seating areas to practice necessary social distance requirements.
With these critical steps in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus in Tampa area courthouses, Judge Ficarrotta acknowledged that a case backlog is unavoidable. He explained that prosecutors will focus on addressing cases that do not require trials to help manage the expected delays ahead. There is also an anticipation of a surge in new cases after the moratorium has lifted because of COVID-19 impacts on the Hillsborough County judicial system.
COVID-19 Positivity Rates Leading Factor for Reopening Courts
As of last week, the positivity rate in Hillsborough County edged over fifteen percent. This steady rise in COVID-19 spread led up to these recent suspensions imposed by Judge Ficarrotta.
The 13th Judicial Circuit made its decision almost a month after jury trials in Pasco County were suspended by Chief Justice Anthony Rondolino. These latest circuit court moratoriums are part of a larger effort by the Florida Supreme Court rules that have required reevaluation of court operational plans by chief judges when their county of jurisdiction exceeds a positivity rate of 10 percent.
According to John Hopkins, higher positive percentages can indicate that the transmission rate is more significant than realized in the community due to more community members not having been tested. Further, The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that governments not reopen if their positivity rate exceeds 5 percent.
Florida Struggling to Combat COVID-19 Surge
Since Thanksgiving, new coronavirus cases have surged in Tampa and throughout The Sunshine State. With over 93,000 new cases, Florida comes in third among other states experiencing spikes in positivity rates according to Reuters. The nation as a whole has 22,000 reported deaths in the past week, a consecutive weekly record.
The holidays made testing a challenge due to testing site closures and people traveling to visit families before receiving negative COVID-19 tests. These circumstances are compounded by the fact that reported data was also slow during this particularly busy time of year.
As of January 11, Tampa reported over 2,300 new coronavirus cases and 100 deaths, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times.
Chief Judge Ficarrotta Sets a Tentative Date to Resume Hearings
With courthouses forced to take extra measures to ensure the public safety from virus spread, any trials that already started and had juries sworn could continue until finished. Judge Ficarrotta made it clear that any trials already scheduled on February 8, 2021, or later would remain on the docket until further notice was given to the contrary.
In his order, he emphasized that the resumption of any in-person hearings, jury trials, and other related in-person actions for March 1, 2021, was tentative in nature. The court intends to continue monitoring the latest COVID-19 data from Tallahassee and make further decisions as warranted.
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