A little over two weeks after the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court reopened for in-person hearings, an attorney with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office who practices in the building has tested positive for COVID-19. The potential exposure led Judge Paul Bonin to close his courtroom, a court official confirmed to The Lens.

The positive test has also given rise to concerns about the safety measures being implemented in the courthouse — which was closed for in-person proceedings for over six months, starting in March — and the timeliness in which people potentially exposed to the infected person were notified. 

Ken Daley, a spokesperson for Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro, said that the attorney tested positive last week.

“Last week, an asymptomatic assistant district attorney tested positive for Covid-19, and was immediately directed to quarantine at home for at least 14 days and until cleared by a negative test,” he said on Wednesday in a statement. 

Danny Engelberg of the Orleans Public Defender’s office — whose staff attorneys regularly appear in court alongside prosecutors — said that his office wasn’t notified until Tuesday morning about the positive test. He said that was concerning. 

“The Centers for Disease Control guidelines are very clear, that if you’ve been in contact —  if you’ve been in a workplace — that people need to be given timely notice.” Engelberg said. “If it’s true that the person tested positive last week, that did not happen.”

He said he received notification from the court of the positive test, but has not received any direct information from the DAs office. Rob Kazik, the judicial administrator, also said that he didn’t receive information about the positive until Tuesday morning, when he was informed by Bonin, whom the attorney reportedly appeared in front of last week. (The court was closed on Monday for Columbus Day.)

But Kazik said he didn’t know who the attorney was or when they tested positive for the virus. He said that the court staff had started contact tracing by notifying everyone who came through the doors of the Section D courtroom, where Bonin presides.

“We called those individuals and notified them that someone was in court that tested positive while they were in court, so we encouraged them to get tested and to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Kazik said. But he couldn’t immediately say how many individuals that was, or how far back the tracing was going. He said that Bonin generally allowed very few people in his courtroom, and encouraged defendants to appear via Zoom. 

Engelberg said that he had heard the prosecutor was in court last Wednesday. He wished them a speedy recovery.

The courthouse is operating on a staggered schedule, with half the sections of court open on Monday and Wednesday, and the other half on Tuesday and Thursday. Defendants still have the option of appearing via Zoom. 

Bonin’s courtroom is on the Monday and Wednesday schedule. This week, there was no court because of the holiday. On Wednesday, his courtroom was closed, but Bonin held proceedings via Zoom, according to Kazick.

Engelberg also said that “there has been no change of any staffing from the District Attorney’s office.” 

Daley, the spokesperson for the DA’s office, said that the attorney “appears to have been exposed by a close relation who tested positive hours earlier,” and that there was only one other staff member at the DA’s office potentially affected. That person tested negative, Daley said.

“This attorney’s closest direct work contact was a supervisor who has tested negative for the virus,” he said. “No other employees have been affected.”

But Daley did not respond to direct questions about when or how often the infected attorney had been in court or in the office, nor what steps the office is taking to contact trace. He said the office has “maintained one of the city’s strictest and safest workplaces to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

“The office remains closed to the public, and is open only to a select few employees performing essential tasks,” he said, noting that employees are encouraged to work from home “whenever possible.” He also cited staggered work hours to reduce building occupancy, masks, social distancing, mandatory temperature checks, and regular disinfecting of work stations. 

Engelberg said there was one attorney at the public defender’s office who had been in Section D last week, and they were currently in quarantine. He said that the rest of the office had been informed, and that he didn’t believe any other staff had been exposed.

The rest of the courthouse remains open. According to the court website, masks and social distancing are required, access is limited by the Sheriff’s Office to maintain safe occupancy, 

But Engelberg said despite the guidelines, he doesn’t feel that everyone in the building is taking them seriously. He noted that judges and attorneys frequently take off their masks or pull them down when they are talking.

“The judicial administrator Rob Kazik and the chief judge have set out very clear guidelines, and they themselves are doing everything they can to keep things as safe as possible,” Engelberg said. “But they don’t control judges and how courtrooms are operating with people in them.” 

In August, before the court had opened its doors to the public, it was shut down to staff for a week due to “possible exposure to the virus” after a courthouse deputy tested positive for the virus.

“What we’re seeing is a good part of that courthouse not in compliance with city guidelines,” Engleberg said. “I’m concerned we could have our own superspreader event in the courthouse unless people can take the guidelines a bit more seriously.”

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...