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Union demands closure, cleaning of Baltimore district courthouse after wave of coronavirus cases

Clerks and public defenders are demanding the temporarily closure of the Wabash Avenue district courthouse in Northwest Baltimore after several employees there came down with the coronavirus.

In a letter Monday night to Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and District Judge John P. Morrissey, the union of courthouse employees called for the building to be closed 72 hours for cleaning.

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“I’m scared. I’m scared for my coworkers," said Sally Larsen, a union member and assistant public defender. “When you get that many cases at one courthouse, it’s clear there is spread at the courthouse.”

Five employees at the Wabash courthouse have contracted the virus, said Stuart Katzenberg, a union organizer. In their letter to the judges, the union members described the situation at the courthouse as an “ongoing outbreak."

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“Additionally, there are serious public health and safety concerns that predate this outbreak, which have further exacerbated its potential spread through the building and into the community," union members wrote.

The five people who contracted the virus are quarantined and the entire courthouse was cleaned and sanitized last Saturday, wrote Terri Charles, a spokeswoman for the courts. She wrote the union back Tuesday, saying the courthouse remains open and they continue to follow safety protocols such as providing hand sanitizer, masks, temperature checks and health screening questions.

“The Maryland Judiciary has as its top priority the health and safety of its employees, judges, our justice partners and the public during the coronavirus pandemic,” she wrote.

One person also came down with the virus at the Office of the Public Defender. The office on St. Paul Street temporarily closed for cleaning and has since reopened, said Paul DeWolfe, the public defender.

“The safety of our staff and clients is our highest priority and we are working to ensure that sufficient measures are taken in all locations where they are at risk," DeWolfe said in a statement.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees also demanded the courts conduct civil and traffic hearings remotely, install plastic dividers, allow alternating shifts of clerks and staff, provide more personal protective equipment, and limit public access to the clerk’s office.

They write that courthouse security has failed to adequately screen all visitors and enforce the requirement that everyone wear masks.

Their demands come as courts statewide ease back into full operations. Barbera had closed courthouses in March amid the coronavirus pandemic. In July, bench trials resumed in the district courts. One month later, all criminal, traffic and civil matters resumed.

Larsen, the union member, said there’s no reason why the district courts can’t conduct proceedings remotely for misdemeanor crimes and traffic cases.

Meanwhile, the Circuit Courts resumed jury trials Oct. 5. Judges have spent months developing procedures to safely reopen the courts and their plans called for courtrooms to be rebuilt with plastic dividers and socially distant seating.

Still, the public defenders and other union employees have expressed concerns about whether the city’s busy courthouses will be safe enough.

Attorneys have fallen sick with the virus; as have employees with the clerk’s and sheriff’s offices. Earlier this month, a Baltimore Circuit Judge came down with the virus. More than 141,000 people have contracted coronavirus in Maryland and it’s killed nearly 4,000 people, according to state health officials.

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Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of union member Sally Larsen.

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