Comanche County is pushing forward with plans to reopen the courthouse June 1, but officials admit there are questions to be answered before that occurs.
The courthouse in downtown Lawton has been closed to the general public since March 19, although county offices have continued to operate and some are available to residents under special circumstances or by appointment. In recent weeks, Comanche County Commissioners, led by Central District Commissioner Johnny Owens, have agreed the county will follow Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Open Up and Recover Safely Plan and its three-phase reopening of businesses, to include restaurants, sports venues and bars.
Phase 2 went into effect May 15 and if the state’s COVID-19 numbers continue to tend downward, the state’s plan would move to Phase 3 on June 1.
Owens said Monday during a meeting with county department heads that June 1 also could be the date the Comanche County Courthouse reopens, if elected officials and department heads agree. Some courthouses in the state already have reopened to the general public, but Comanche County officials indicated they would take a more measured approach. Owens said that approach will include limiting hours to 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., giving county officials time to sanitize high traffic areas. The courthouse typically is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Department heads meeting with commissioners in what has become a weekly session said a June 1 opening was suitable, but also said there are issues to be finalized before the courthouse unlocks its doors and allows the general public to use the building again. Much of the discussion originated with county judges, who have been meeting locally among themselves and remotely with judges across the state to weigh actions that will allow the state court system to become operational again. Comanche County judges already canceled the June trial docket.
District Judge Scott Meaders said Comanche County judges will meet, confirm and approve an administrative order about how they will handle cases once commissioners make a formal decision on reopening the courthouse. While the Oklahoma Supreme Court said it is up to individual counties as to when they will reopen, deadlines for filing cases opened up Monday (the Supreme Court had suspended deadlines with an order it issued in March).
County judges have been meeting for weeks to iron out the details about their courtroom procedures and said Monday only one real question remains: whether they will mandate facial coverings (those that cover the nose and mouth) for everyone in all courtrooms. District Judge Emmit Tayloe said last week that judges already had agreed on other operational procedures, to include limiting people in courtrooms to a maximum of 10. Judges also will encourage people to conduct their dealings by phone or teleconference, when possible.
Comanche County judges remain mixed over whether to require masks for everyone in their courtrooms, and said Grady County is among those who have made that decision. Brandie Combs, Region 5 regional director for the Oklahoma Department of Health, said masks are the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control, but some entities, including the City of Lawton, have made the decision to “strongly encourage” residents to wear masks in their facilities.
“People coming in need to wear masks,” said Owens, adding that county employees should wear masks while dealing with the public or when they are in close proximity to others.
Michael Merritt, the county’s emergency management director, said other counties are using a pre-written policy that specifies facial coverings of some type of cloth, suitable as long as they cover the nose and mouth of the wearer.
“That’s what most counties are doing,” Merritt said.
Department heads also are concerned about the number of residents who will be coming into the courthouse at one time, but Owens said there may be problems with determining a limit. Court officials such as Court Clerk Robert Morales have expressed concerns about specific types of legal proceedings, including small claims court, which typically bring in a large number of residents.
Judges said Monday they would have to agree to be lenient about issuing bench warrants against those who did not appear in court, if residents hadn’t been able to get inside in a timely manner because of occupancy limits.