No COVID precautions, no court hearings 

By Sahar Chmais

Hays County Court at Law 3 Judge Daniel O’Brien has COVID-19, delaying his docket for the week.

Though it is unclear where O’Brien may have contracted the virus, on Thursday, Sept. 2, a prosecutor attended O’Brien’s court and later that evening tested positive for COVID-19, according to multiple anonymous sources. The prosecutor was wearing a mask during court.

On June 1, Hays County Courts at Law resumed in-person court proceedings. While court has no mask mandates or social distancing protocols in place, they strongly encourage unvaccinated attendees to wear masks, according to County Court at Law 2 Judge Christopher Johnson. The court is also trying to stagger people in the courtrooms and put defendants in the hallways if possible, but dockets have been increasing in numbers and sometimes it is difficult to distance, Johnson said.

Hays County Courts-at-Law have reverted to in-person hearings because that is a more efficient approach than Zoom, Johnson said.

“The system has got to deal with it like any other illness,” Johnson explained. “The system has to do the best it can to move on. As long as everybody is doing the best they can [in taking safety precautions], more court cases will move than they would otherwise.”

Travis County, on the other hand, continues to conduct court through Zoom, a process that has been efficient, said Austin-based Attorney Daniel Wannamaker. Federal Courts are also back to in-person sessions.

Wannamaker attended a court hearing in Hays County, which was not in O’Brien’s court, and shared his experience.

“It was more crowded than my liking,” Wannamaker said. “I would have preferred not to go in person; we have the technology to do Zoom, and Travis County has shown the ability for employing it … I try to keep a distance from everybody who is not wearing a mask.”

When Wannamaker showed up to Hays County Court for a case, security at the metal detectors were not wearing masks, which was “a little disconcerting.” The court was full, although he said it would be difficult to social distance inside. The judge at Wannamaker’s case was also not wearing a mask.

Additionally, much of the defense bar did not wear masks. From Wannamaker’s recollection, the court clerks, prosecutors and defendants were wearing masks.

“I think it’s reckless [not to wear masks],” Wannamaker told the Hays Free Press/News-Dispatch. “I think the conduct of anybody in a public building or public space, who chooses not to take CDC safety protocol, is pretty reckless.”

In May, Gov. Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-36, prohibiting government entities from mandating masks.

O’Brien’s court docket for the week has been rescheduled, but it is not known when the judge will come back to court.

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Sahar Chmais holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has been covering cities in Hays County for one year, touching on residents' struggles and successes, city issues, COVID-19 and more. Prior to reporting on the local spectrum, Sahar reported for a national news organization, covering gun violence. Sahar enjoys working as a local reporter because she gets to work with real people and their stories.

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