The Minnesota Judicial Council held its first in-person meeting in more than a year Thursday. It took place inside St. Paul’s InterContinental Hotel, (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
But Judicial Council opts for no further change to in-person hearings for now
Mask mandates will disappear from Minnesota courthouses on July 6.
That was the unanimous decision Thursday from the Minnesota Judicial Council.
However, visitors and courthouse employees will be able to keep wearing face coverings in court, if they choose. And any installed Plexiglas barriers or ventilation improvements made to courtroom will remain in place.
Meanwhile, signs cautioning people to engage in safe public health practices, and spots on the floor indicating the safe distance from which to avoid spreading disease can stay where they are.
The Judicial Council eliminated the mask mandate Thursday, adopting the recommendations of its Other Side Work Group. That’s the council subcommittee that has helped steer the state’s court system through the pandemic and is helping shape a vision for what court operations look will like when it’s over.
Its chair, 7th Judicial District Court Judge Michelle Winkis Lawson, initially recommended that the mask mandate be lifted either on July 6, or when 70% of the state’s population, ages 16 and up, have had at least one vaccination—whichever happened first.
But during discussions, several council members expressed doubt that the governor’s 70% statewide vaccination goal would be reached by then—if ever. So to avoid potential confusion, the council opted for a hard expiration date of July 6.
The council’s decision eliminating the mandate will be issued as a Supreme Court order sometime in the coming days.
It will allow judges to temporarily order mask removal from those opting to wear them, if that proves essential to a court proceeding—when a defendant needs to be identified at trial, for example.
The July 6 expiration date will give courts a few weeks to adjust to the change. It’s also the first working day following the upcoming July 4 holiday.
A Minnesota courthouse social-distancing requirement was eliminated in May, but the masking requirement had remained in place.
The judiciary’s statewide COVID-19 Preparedness Plan will go away on July 6 as well, as will corresponding protective jury plans. The preparedness plan, which was based on Minnesota Department of Health and CDC guidance, outlines health and safety parameters that courts must follow as in-person court operations continue expanding.
The council on Thursday did not change any of its current orders pertaining to in-person hearings, however.
An order last month loosened hearing restrictions considerably, allowing for presumptively in-person civil jury trials, settlement conferences, grand jury proceedings, CHIPS hearings and the like. But there was no further expansion on Thursday. So arraignment calendars and some other District Court proceedings must continue to be held remotely.
Lawson said her workgroup decided July 6 was the right time to end the mask mandate after examining statewide COVID-19 indicators and seeing them trending mostly in the right direction.
Dawn Torgerson, deputy State Court Administrator, told council members that COVID-19 test positivity rates are down to about 3.3%—better than health officials’ 5% target. That’s been true since early May, Torgerson said.
Weekly positive cases by county have also continually dropped, as have hospitalizations and ICU admissions. Most encouragingly, there was no real bump in COVID-19 cases following the Memorial Day holiday.
Only the vaccination rate is a slightly problematic, Torgerson indicated, plateauing at 66% statewide.
“It’s difficult to say if the state will ever reach 70%, but they’ll keep pushing in that direction,” Torgerson said. “I think it’s pretty clear that major indicators continue to drop, but we will obviously continue to monitor.”
9th Judicial District Court Chief Judge Tamara L. Yon, a council member, said she was glad a date certain was chosen to eliminate masking requirements. “It would be hard to tie a decision like this to whenever we hit 70%,” she said, “because we don’t know when that will be and it is really hard to prepare.”
She also suggested the decision comes none too soon for Minnesota’s courts. “I’ll just note,” she said, “I am certainly seeing much more resistance to masking, because it’s not required in so many other places.”
10th Judicial District Chief Judge Stoney L. Hiljus, who supported the move, agreed. But he said he has mixed feelings about the change, and thinks some in the public might share them.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, yay! We’re going to do that!’” Hiljus said. “And at the same time, it’s like going into Walmart, right? When you walk by someone and say, ‘Get away from me, you’re too close!’ I think when we make a change like that, it causes mixed emotions in people.”
For the moment, Minnesota remains one of only 19 states that still have state Supreme Court-required courthouse masking mandates, according to Lawson. New Hampshire and Florida have recently lifted theirs, though neighboring states like Iowa and North Dakota still have orders in place. Wisconsin does not.
Thursday’s meeting, held in the basement ballroom at Downtown St. Paul’s InterContinental Hotel, was the Judicial Council’s first in-person session since before the pandemic in early 2020. The space was chosen because it allowed for social distancing while accommodating the council and meeting observers.
The meeting was also the council’s first not to be live-streamed since early in the pandemic.
However, attempts reportedly are being made to prepare the council’s usual meeting space so that livestreams can resume once the group begins gathering again inside the Judicial Center.