An intern who was working in Manhattan family court as recently as Friday was admitted to the hospital Sunday and tested positive for COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, according to a statement posted on the court’s website yesterday. Delays in disclosure have led to anger and frustration among people who work in the family court every day.
“This afternoon we have been notified that an intern from New York Law School who was admitted earlier in the week to a Westchester Hospital for pneumonia has tested positive for the coronavirus,” read the unsigned court administration statement online. “The individual had been sitting in the parts 45 and 46 of New York County Family Court for the past two weeks. Affected attorneys, judges and other court personnel are in the process of being notified, will be sent home and asked to contact their physicians.”
A spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, Lucian Chalfen, declined via email to say whether the court had plans to close the floor or the building near City Hall, or if anyone else working in those courtrooms is suspected to have the illness.
“The Office of Court Administration called me at 6:30 tonight to let me know I should let my clients know about their possible exposure,” said Seth Schraier, a public defender who represents parents and children in custody, visitation and orders of protection cases, on a call Thursday night. He had interacted with the intern last week. “I’m frustrated I didn’t know sooner – I was inside that courtroom all week.”
The two courtrooms where the infected intern had worked were closed Monday for cleaning, and re-opened Tuesday. Then yesterday around mid-day, two presiding referees were ordered off the bench and the rooms closed again, said multiple people who work on the floor. Other courtrooms where those referees worked have not been closed for cleaning, and as of Thursday afternoon, no paper notices had been posted at the entrance to the building, or on the floor where the infected intern has been working.
“They knew enough to close the courtroom Monday, so why didn’t they tell us to get tested, or to let all our clients know?” said Schraier, who added that he was concerned for his newborn and the elderly relative helping care for the baby.
Through the day Thursday, unaware families continued having cases heard on that floor, including older people and people in wheelchairs, according to people who work in the building. The federal court for Manhattan, the Bronx and several other New York counties – around the corner from the borough’s family court – has already announced it would suspend jury trials next week.
“I am frustrated there was not more disclosure, and faster disclosure,” said Phil Katz, the president of the New York Family Court Assigned Counsel Association, who works in the Manhattan family court. “Higher-ranking people in the court system did not make a decision when there was already a suspicious situation Monday, before they had test results. That, I think, was a big mistake.”
He added that he sympathized with court administrators making calls during an unprecedented crisis with the coronavirus outbreak.
“I understand mistakes can be made with hindsight, but I hope going forward they do more.”
Children, parents and elderly grandparents are litigants in the courthouse, involved in abuse, neglect, delinquency and custody cases, among other family matters. Attorneys who interacted with the intern last week, and others throughout the building, are furious that their clients still didn’t know about the potential exposure Thursday night.
“The unanimous consensus is that we are not getting timely info, they are doing minimal cleaning of minimal areas, and they’re departing from the practices in other courts,” said an attorney who practices in the building, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the court where they work every day.
As of yesterday afternoon, multiple people working in the building full-time, including officers and clerical workers, told The Chronicle they were not aware of the positive test until approached for comment about the situation.
“The statement on the website was posted as we became aware of the positive result. We were made aware of the situation involving a legal intern on Monday – alerted affected personnel and had the two courtrooms deep cleaned,” wrote Chalfen, in response to a list of questions about who made the call to close the courtrooms that were re-opened Tuesday, and whether there were any plans to close the floor or the court building.
“The test results are not immediate and we follow guidelines established by the New York City Department of Health.”
Michael Fitzgerald is the New York editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.