Case backlog spurs lifting of more courthouse COVID-19 restrictions

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

More restrictions on entering the Dickinson County Courthouse are to be lifted next week. The Dickinson County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously to begin the third phase of reopening the courthouse for the public amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The board's concerns largely centered on a backlog of court proceedings that has built up while the courtrooms have been closed. Board chair Bill Leupold said all jury trials have so far been postponed until at least September. Assistant Dickinson County Attorney Lonnie Saunders said other criminal proceedings, like arraignments, are getting backed up as well. Additional, temporary plexiglass barriers will be installed in some county offices, with the intention of moving to phase three on Aug. 5.

"For my part, I want to take care of you guys as best I can," Leupold told the few county employees sitting in the meeting room. "I do believe we need to go to phase three, but we need to be smart about it."

Dickinson County Sheriff Greg Baloun agreed county business should be allowed to continue. He noted the county jail is currently holding only one inmate Teangelo Grice who faces multiple charges, including attempted murder.

"The longer we stay closed, the farther behind we get," Baloun said. "We're talking about the screens now, when we should have been doing it six months ago. We had what we put up and we thought they were adequate for the time It's just frustrating on our part because, again, the expectation was safety in the courthouse, not the lifestyle outside the courthouse."

The courthouse moved to phase two of its plan on July 13. Visitors will still be required to wear masks inside the courthouse and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet whenever possible under phase three, but temperature scans at the courthouse entrance will be voluntary.

"When I look at neighboring counties whether it's Plymouth County, Sioux County, Buena Vista, Woodbury all of them have tremendously more cases than we do, some of them a few more, but they're open," Supervisor Kim Wermersen said. "I think we just have to get to the point where we let the court system get to work."

State tallies confirmed each of the four counties mentioned by Wermersen have more recorded cases of COVID-19, but the state data also shows Dickinson County has more cases per capita among its 17,258 residents than either Sioux County population 34,855 and Plymouth County population 25,177. However, Buena Vista County tops the state's per capita figures. Woodbury County is ranked third, while Dickinson County has the 10th highest infection rate per capita in Iowa. The state listed 110 active cases of COVID-19 in Dickinson County as of Tuesday. The currently active cases make up a little less than a third of the county's 359 total cases so far, and 99 cases have been reported this month alone. Dickinson County's first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in mid-March.

Wermersen went on to say visitors and employees in the courthouse have largely acted responsibly during phase two of the county's courthouse plan. Leupold agreed, saying he heard only one report of an individual refusing to wear a mask. Supervisor Steve Clark, who told the board he and his wife were advised to quarantine themselves after experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 but testing negative for the virus, said he too felt the local courthouse should follow suit with its neighboring county seats.

"Not that I want to follow the same path as everybody, but I'm a little bit at a loss as to why we're dragging our feet," Clark said.

While the additional plexiglass barriers are being installed, Supervisor Tim Fairchild will research potential options for permanent barriers, should the county deem them appropriate.

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