What is it like going to court during the pandemic? I can tell you what it is like in federal court in Gainesville, Florida. I am a labor and employment lawyer who for thirty years has traveled the State of Florida to appear in state and federal courts and before administrative judges, arbitrators and mediators. I defend businesses, represent first responders and other government employee unions, and protect health care professionals on matters of contract and consequence. The traveling and hearings all came to a halt in spring 2020, when Florida was on lockdown to flatten the pandemic curve.
A week ago, I stepped back into federal court with an appearance before United States Magistrate Judge Gary R. Jones here in the Gainesville Division of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida.
My appearance was for an FLSA settlement conference—an effort to resolve a claim of unpaid wages. My team and clients all wore masks and social distanced as we, together, approached the courthouse door. The court security, several of whom are retired local law-enforcement, kindly opened the door so none of us had to touch the handle. All of the security employees were wearing masks, many of which were N95s. They all engaged in appropriate social distancing.
Like any other day, we passed through the x-ray and metal detector. The elevator procedure, however, was new. Only one person was allowed in the elevator at a time to insure appropriate social distancing. This was welcome and did not cause any delay.
Upstairs in the courtroom, we found disinfecting wipes readily available for us to wipe down our chairs and table. The courtroom deputy clerk was wearing a mask and naturally socially distanced from her spot at the bench or just in front of the bench. We continued to wear our masks and social distance. Giving each other sufficient space was easy in the open courtroom. When the opposing party and his attorney arrived, they were not wearing masks. The deputy clerk explained the judge required masks to be worn and they would need to put their masks on, which they did.
When we were all present and ready, Judge Jones was so informed by the deputy clerk, and he entered through the chamber door. He was carrying rather than wearing his mask at that time. He explained that when we broke into the separate caucuses, he would be wearing his mask. He simply was not now so that he could be more easily seen and heard by the participants from his very distant position at the bench. For the settlement conference, we broke out into separate rooms. My team and clients went to the adjoining jury room and I brought the chair I had sanitized from the court room. We remained socially distanced as did Judge Jones when he came in for caucuses with us.
The mediation was productive, but our time came to an end as Judge Jones was scheduled to conduct a hearing in unrelated matter. We agreed to continue the mediation with Judge Jones on a later date by Zoom video meeting with breakout rooms. I volunteered to host, assuring the Court and all participants that the Zoom operators would not overserve the breakout rooms or record any discussions. Our virtual FLSA settlement conference is scheduled for next week. I’ll let you know how it goes.