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Outside courthouse in Westminster, a long wait in hot weather on first day Maryland courts reopened to public

On the first day that courts reopened to the public, Sarah Wisner of Taneytown arrived to the Carroll County Circuit Court building early.

She had an appearance scheduled for noon Monday to handle a traffic matter. After checking in at a table outside the courthouse, a bailiff and a law clerk asked her wait outside. A line of about 20 people formed. Some wore masks, some did not. Some people spaced themselves apart from others. More than an hour passed, and Wisner, 31, began to feel ill under the summer heat.

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“They didn’t really have a system set up for anything,” she said. “They called roll and we stood there.”

Judge Fred S. Hecker, administrative judge of Carroll County Circuit Court, said he heard about the situation, and now procedures are changing to let people into the courthouse instead of making them wait outside.

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Hecker said the intent Monday was to keep some people waiting outside to limit the number of people in the courthouse, in the interest of minimizing risk to those inside amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Fred S. Hecker
Judge Fred S. Hecker (Doug Kapustin/Carroll County Times)

“We tried to strike a balance between maintaining social distancing, of course, and bringing everyone into the courthouse at one time,” he said Tuesday. “Yesterday was one of those cases where we had very large criminal dockets in the morning and the afternoon, so we had a lot of people coming to the courthouse at one time.”

As Wisner waited, she said, she began to feel nauseous. A bailiff offered her a bottle of water, but it was hot.

According to the National Weather Service, it was 93 degrees just before noon and 97 degrees before 1 p.m. Monday, as measured at the Frederick Municipal Airport.

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Wisner didn’t draw the attention of courthouse staff, but texted her mother. Rachel Wisner told her daughter to check her heart rate on her smartwatch. It read 123 beats per minute; Sarah Wisner said she’s usually around 85.

“I was dizzy and I felt a knot in my chest,” she said.

Wisner’s mother called the courthouse after her daughter had been waiting over an hour. A staff member told her said they would send someone to check on her daughter. About two minutes later, she got a text from her daughter saying that they were letting everyone inside. Wisner said she felt better after getting out of the sun, and a bailiff came to check on her.

Hecker apologized to anyone who was uncomfortable while they were waiting.

“We currently have no plans to require people to wait outside the courthouse,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “We are confident that at the present time we can comply [with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines while allowing parties who have scheduled cases in the courthouse.”

Hecker acknowledged cases have been building up since certain court operations were postponed due to the pandemic, and there may be longer wait times.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to strike that balance between not postponing cases any more than we have to and at the same time not bringing any more people into court than is necessary,” he said.

Hecker doesn’t anticipate long lines outside the courthouse again, but said he might consider setting up tents for shade if that were to occur. Information about COVID-19 procedures related to Carroll County Circuit Court can be found online.

On Tuesday, Wisner said she felt better, and was grateful she wouldn’t have to stand in the sun outside the courthouse again.

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