By Ese Olumhense and Rachel Holliday Smith, Additional Reporting By Reuven Blau, Originally published in THE CITY on 3/12/2020.
Bright red warning posters set to appear at all state courts starting Friday will direct people not to enter if they have “flu-like symptoms” — and offer them a chance to delay court dates by phone.
Also eligible for a legal rain check will be anyone who recently traveled to “hot zone” countries, was exposed to infected people or “directed to quarantine, isolate or self-monitor at home for the coronavirus by any doctor, hospital or health agency.”
“If you have a scheduled appearance or were otherwise directed to attend court today, you will not be penalized for your absence,” reads the flyer, which was obtained by THE CITY.
The state court system, which includes Housing Court, is also taking “a series of additional steps to limit traffic in the courts during this medical emergency,” according to a Thursday memo from Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks to court personnel.
Marks wrote that judges have been advised to adopt a lenient attitude toward postponements, and to consider using video and phone conferencing where possible.
But the courts stopped short of encouraging delays for people who are merely in a high risk category for acquiring infection — such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
Eviction Risk Weighed
In Housing Court, many such people are tenants who must appear to defend themselves against eviction — the risk of which is heightened by the economic disruptions brought by coronavirus-prevention measures.
“People showed up ‘cause they have to,” one tenant attorney at Bronx Housing Court told THE CITY. “We work with a number of elderly people who have visible physical disabilities — walkers, canes.”
Poster going up at courthouses warning people who may have coronavirus not to enter. Photo: NYS Office of Court Administration
Others came to the court — the city’s busiest — with babies and other youngsters.
On Thursday — the same day a Manhattan Family Court court worker was revealed to be infected with coronavirus — officers at the Bronx court donned blue rubber gloves.
A legal organization doing intake on the busy third floor arrived with an industrial-size container of hand sanitizer and a box of tissues.
Despite the caution on display, hearings — and eviction orders — were still taking place. “It’s business as usual,” the tenant attorney noted.
‘Do Better Than That’
Other U.S. cities, many with few confirmed COVID-19 cases, have put moratoriums on evictions because of the virus. Police in Miami announced on Thursday they would suspend eviction actions, as San Jose, Calif., did earlier in the week.
“Let’s be as progressive as Florida! That’s all we’re asking,” said Jared Trujillo, president of a local union representing legal aid attorneys in New York.
He sees a health-threatening double standard at work in the gears of the justice system still grinding while other institutions come to a halt. “If preventing mass gatherings is good enough for college students and everyone else, it should be good enough for low-income mostly black and brown folks,” Trujillo said.
Housing Justice for All, a group that lobbied successfully for pro-tenant rent-law reforms in Albany last year, is circulating a petition demanding that state Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately “freeze rents” and halt evictions and utility shut-offs.
As of Thursday evening, the petition had more than 7,700 signatures. On the same day, State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) introduced a bill that would suspend evictions and foreclosures during an emergency.
Senator Brad Hoylman
No one should ever be put at risk & forced to look for shelter during a public health emergency.
Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Upon hearing of the measures taken so far by the Office of Court Administration, Housing Justice leader Cea Weaver said the courts agency is “going to have to do better than that.”
“People say, well the best thing you can do is wash your hands, but we don’t have hot water in our public housing,” she said. “It’s really hard for your body, especially if you’re immune-compromised, to adequately fight disease if you’re living in unsafe housing.”
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio could implement a moratorium by directing the city’s Department of Investigation to tell city marshals to stop executing warrants of eviction indefinitely, advocates contend, or by closing court buildings run by the city.
On Thursday, Deputy Mayor Vicki Been announced that the New York City Housing Authority had ceased most evictions.
At the same press briefing, she said “we are in discussions with the court system about what we could do” for tenants with private landlords.
“We can’t wait,” said Susanna Blankley, coalition coordinator at the city’s Right to Counsel Coalition. “We need the New York City mayor to act. He has a lot of control over evictions.”
A major landlord group Thursday said it could tolerate a pause on eviction proceedings. Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP, said in a statement that its “members are willing to do whatever is asked of them by the government.”
Jay Martin, the group’s president, told THE CITY that CHIP members are “extremely sympathetic to the health concerns” and would not be affected much by a temporary stoppage of evictions.
That’s because the group’s members — who represent about 400,000 apartments in the New York City area, 90% of which are rent-stabilized — don’t rely on evictions to make money.
“It’s really only done in rare cases,” he said. “The financial implications it would have on the buildings themselves is minimal.”
But, the group advised that political leaders exercise caution on calls to freeze rents. CHIP hopes to be “part of the conversation” if state leaders are considering such a measure
“Otherwise, we’re going to have bigger problems down the road once this disease starts working its way out of our collective culture,” Martin said.
Court Worker Sick
Meanwhile, a legal intern who worked in Manhattan Family Court was diagnosed with the coronavirus, state officials announced Thursday.
Court officials are in the process of reaching out to all lawyers who may have come in contact with the unidentified woman, who was assigned to Parts 45 and 46 on the ninth floor, according to a message Family Court Judge Karen Lupuloff sent to lawyers.
Manhattan Family Court Judge Karen Lupuloff, in November, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
“We will also ask those attorneys to notify their clients who appeared in court so they too can take any steps they believe are warranted,” Lupuloff said.
Denis Quirk, president of the Court Officers’ Association, said about 20 of his members who came in contact with the intern and other possible coronavirus cases have been quarantined. “A lot of my people were sent home to see doctors,” said Quirk.
“At this stage they are not closing the courts,” he added. “You can’t shut down the government.”
One attorney who came in contact with the infected intern was furious court officials didn’t contact him sooner.
Seth Schraier, 39, said the courtroom was first briefly closed on Monday afternoon, when “the judge said the intern was admitted to the hospital with “pneumonia.”
“Nobody actually came out and said anything official,” he recalled.
The courtroom reopened on Tuesday, according to Schraier.
“You’d figure they’d be at least some sort of communication system put in place,” he said. “None of that happened.”
He finally got a call Thursday around 6 p.m. from a court staffer telling him the intern had tested positive for coronavirus.
“Right now, I need to decide whether I’m going to show up to cases I have tomorrow,” he said, “or whether I should self quarantine instead of putting other people at risk.”