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Deschutes County courtrooms getting COVID-19 makeovers

Renovations had been planned for November, to meet ADA guidelines

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Deschutes County courtrooms are getting revamped sooner than planned, due to COVID-19 and in an effort to adhere to social distancing guidelines in court proceedings.

Deschutes County Trial Court Administrator Jeff Hall told NewsChannel 21 Thursday there are three original courtrooms at the Deschutes County courthouse that originally were scheduled for renovation in November. Due to COVID-19, the county moved up the renovation to May.

Hall said most of the furniture in the courtrooms has been the same since the '70s, and it was not feasible to keep people at least six feet apart. He said they hope to get furniture that is easier to move around when necessary, even after the pandemic is over.

Hall said workers have already taken out the chairs bolted to the floor in Courtroom B, and demolition work is expected to begin Thursday night. That work is expected to finish by Monday.

Circuit Court Presiding Judge Wells Ashby said the original idea behind renovating the courtrooms was to make them more ADA-accessible. He said although COVID-19 changed some of the original design concepts, the overall goal remains the same, and that is to keep people safe.

“It’s really just to provide a work environment that’s safe for the people that have to use our courts,” Ashby said. “We provide essential services. We’re required to meet statutory and constitutional requirements and mandates, and we want to continue to do the important work of courts as safely as possible.”

He said everything will be taken out of the courtrooms, except for the judge’s bench, for the work that's needed.

“We just want to keep litigants, all court users, jurors, staff, and the public safe,” Ashby said. “So we’ve taken out all the unnecessary things in the courtroom. We’re going to maximize the space in the courtroom, and distance everyone.”

Ashby and Hall said workers will construct a barrier in the courtroom to separate witnesses and jurors. Hall said they are also considering getting separate tables for each attorney, instead of the one shared table the courtrooms have currently.

NewsChannel 21 asked Ashby how much has changed in the court system since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In some ways, he said, “It’s been nice. We have a couple of our judges working from home, and we’ve implemented teleconferences. So we’ve actually been able to stay quite busy.”

But he said the courts still need to get back to a robust trial schedule and he hopes the courtroom renovations will help with that.

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Rhea Panela

Rhea Panela is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Rhea here.


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