County courthouse

The Bingham County Courthouse.

BLACKFOOT – Information was provided that the Supreme Court will require that jury trials and civil cases have their dates of returning to the courtroom pushed back again, says Bingham County Clerk Pam Eckhardt.

During Friday’s county commissioners’ meeting, Eckhardt explained that because of the continued rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, they have been advised to push back in-person jury trials until Sept. 14 at the earliest while civil matters will be on hold until Dec. 1.

Commissioner Whitney Manwaring asked county Prosecutor Paul Rogers what their plans are regarding these changes. Rogers responded that with all of the Supreme Court rules and guidelines, his office has closed to the general public, with extremely limited availability to meet in person. The reason for that is concern about the welfare and health of his employees and potential exposure of COVID-19 in the courthouse.

Along the same lines, it’s a Supreme Court requirement that masks must be worn inside a courtroom and the hallways of the courthouse. Because of the way Bingham County’s courthouse is set up, Rogers has used those guidelines to the fullest for his staff, requiring that any time they are outside of their office, a mask must be worn to remain in compliance of the mandate.

The discussion regarding the changes in court dates sparked other questions from the commissioners. One of the prominent questions was about social distancing in a courtroom. Because jurors sit in a juror box together, they would not be able to socially distance properly and it is not in the court’s best interest to require masks to be worn for long hours, they have followed the Supreme Court guidelines on adding a wide-angle camera to the courtroom where the trial will be held, and they will be broadcasting it across multiple courtrooms at a time so that proper social distancing can take place.

Sheriff Craig Rowland asked if they needed to reopen the command center outside of the courthouse and decrease the numbers of people entering the courthouse again. He was assured that it would not be necessary at this time, but was asked to continue to offer the command center as a place for those attending pretrial arraignments or other appearances to access the court’s Zoom link.

Currently, the county offers two locations for those who have to appear; they have a kiosk available as well as the command center. People who have access to Zoom from home are able to request to appear at home during this time.

“When we start juror trials, we will definitely have to open the trailer,” Rowland stated in regards to continued utilization of the command center at the courthouse.

After discussing the current state of the courts during the pandemic, other department heads were also asked for their current COVID updates. Most made it clear that they are doing everything they can to limit or eliminate contact with the public as well as advising those around them to do the same.

Manwaring also explained why he voted the way he did during the Southeastern Idaho Public Health meeting on Thursday, where he voted against mandating masks and went for a softer, more advisory approach in changing the verbiage to say “strongly recommend.”

He explained that because of the continued requirement from the private sector for people to wear masks to enter their businesses, he felt that the major areas of congestion in Bingham County have already installed mask policies and he did not want to subject the Bingham County Sheriff’s Office or Blackfoot Police and the dispatch team to the countless numbers of calls that would be fielded about who is or is not wearing a mask.

One of the sheriff’s deputies attended the meeting via Zoom and has tested positive for COVID-19. He has been in quarantine but requested a moment to speak to the commissioners about it.

“I was an anti-masker before I contracted the virus, I now can say it’s no joke,” he stated. He went on to express concern for those who do not think that masks make a difference; he wants people to look at the science around them and to make the conscientious decision to wear one when needed and to not be afraid to take a five- or 10-minute no mask break when you can safely.

He reminded everyone in the meeting that it is acceptable to excuse oneself from an area to go where you can safely socially distance for a few minutes and take the mask off, but do not forget that they can and do make a difference. He concluded with expressing how hard it has hit him, and he does not want to see others have to go through it.

The commissioners thanked him for speaking out about it, and concluded the meeting shortly after. Although the officer identified himself, his identity is being kept anonymous out of respect for his personal privacy.