Godwin Courts Building to close due to ‘positive COVID issues’

Published 11:02 am Wednesday, September 23, 2020

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The Mills E. Godwin Courthouse in downtown Suffolk closed at noon Wednesday and will stay closed through at least Friday due to positive COVID-19 cases.

“We are experiencing positive COVID issues and will be sanitizing the courts complex in its entirety,” Sheriff E.C. Harris said in a Sept. 23 email.

Harris said there are multiple courthouse employees who have COVID-19.

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“Those that are positive would have possibly had access to most areas of the courthouse,” Harris said in a follow-up phone interview.

Harris, who learned of the positive COVID-19 cases in the past two days, said plans are for the courts building to reopen at 8 a.m. Sept. 28. Anyone affected by the closure, including those whose cases are being continued, should contact the clerk’s office for the respective court, he said.

Harris said there are no plans for courthouse staff to perform contact tracing, as “I have no ability to contact trace here,” citing the number of people who come and go from the courthouse on a daily and weekly basis.

“We’ve been averaging, maybe, anywhere from 500 to 750 a day walking in the courthouse,” Harris said. “We wouldn’t even know who most of them are. … I wouldn’t have a clue who they were, no clue.”

However, Harris said he does not believe anyone would have been within six feet for 15 minutes of any courthouse staff to qualify, by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as having been in close contact with any courthouse employee.

“There would have been no citizen that would have been that close to us – an employee of the courthouse,” Harris said.

With new barriers and shields, and everyone wearing masks, “no one would have come into direct contact condition that the CDC has,” Harris said.

Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner said he could not comment on any specific outbreaks or ongoing case investigations, though he explained, generally, how the Virginia Department of Health performs contact tracing.

“If there were to be confirmed cases at the courthouse, like any other office space or business, those cases would then have a case/contact investigation performed, and if they fit the criteria for a close contact, they will be advised as such,” Wagner said in an email. “Normally, in these types of environments … like stores or many other businesses, the contact is not close and is often only in passing nature and therefore are extremely low risk for transmission.

“Thus, we do not put resources to those investigations, but rather to those we believe to be higher risk – close distance for a more prolonged period. As we have been doing throughout this pandemic, it is a way to triage cases and prioritize limited case/contact manpower.”

Suffolk’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations and General District courts closed July 13 for several days following positive COVID-19 cases among attorneys who had been in those courts previously. ServPro came to deep clean both courts.

The Circuit Court had closed two weeks prior to other courts closing in mid-July after someone who had been there was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Face masks have been a requirement to enter the courthouse, and everyone receives a temperature screening and is asked whether they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 before being allowed inside. Harris said he’s got a trio of sanitation specialists who are cleaning and sanitizing the courthouse throughout the day .

“We’ve been doing ultraviolet lighting every day, every night in all the courtrooms,” Harris said. “We’re really trying to do everything we can.”

Back in July, Harris noted that dealing with COVID-19 would be an ongoing thing and that it would happen “over and over and over again.”

“I don’t know what else we can do right now,” Harris said.