As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin reported Tuesday, “A defense attorney is self-quarantining for two weeks after talking last week at a district court with an unmasked state trooper who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Masks are required in court facilities under a judicial order.” The Pennsylvania State Police is looking into the matter. Troopers are instructed by the state police to wear masks when in contact with the public, Nephin reported, and troopers who fail to do so may face discipline. State police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said Tuesday that the agency won’t discuss an individual’s discipline.
We all make mistakes.
But we ought to be particularly careful when our mistakes can have serious consequences for other people. And a state trooper should know that.
This episode is a cautionary tale about what can happen in wider society when people don’t take the very simple measure of wearing masks to protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Even one individual’s failure to wear a mask in a public space can disrupt efforts to return to some semblance of normal life, especially if that individual is diagnosed with COVID-19.
As Nephin reported, Lancaster defense attorney Patricia Spotts was talking with the state trooper in the lobby of a district court facility in Intercourse on June 16.
As she talked to him about a case, she commented that he should be wearing a mask, as she was.
He still failed to don a mask.
According to a court order issued by Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth, masks are required in court facilities through August.
The directive isn’t buried in a mountain of “thereofs” and “ergos” and other bits of legalese. It is stated plainly in Ashworth’s order: “Individuals permitted access to any Court facility will be required to maintain appropriate social distancing of at least six feet, to wear protective face masks or appropriate face coverings in common areas, and to comply with all safety directives provided by the Court or County staff.”
It couldn’t be clearer.
Several days later, Spotts got a call from county court administration informing her that the trooper had tested positive for COVID-19.
That is a call no one wants to get.
As a result, Spotts said she now is — responsibly — self-quarantining. Because, as she told Nephin, she works in a small practice, she had to reschedule some of her cases.
We imagine this is not just a headache for her, but for her clients, as well as the courts.
“We have to go to these places to represent defendants who are incarcerated, and it’s important that we be able to do our job and do our jobs safely,” Spotts told Nephin. “And I think that’s what the court order is trying to accomplish.”
That is clearly the case.
Which is undoubtedly why President Judge Ashworth said in an email Monday that he is “seriously concerned and disappointed with what appears to be the failure to comply with a direct administrative order. I can only assume the trooper in question was not fully informed of this court’s order.”
But again, Spotts reminded the trooper that he was supposed to wear a mask, so he can’t say he didn’t know about the rule.
It wasn’t her role to demand he wear one. That was the job of the constable reminded by District Judge William Benner (who was covering that day for Judge Raymond Sheller in Sheller’s Intercourse courtroom) to make sure everyone was maintaining social distance and wearing a mask.
“Everyone who stepped foot into the courtroom had a mask on,” Benner told Nephin. “I don’t know what was going on in the lobby.”
We don’t know the circumstances of any encounter between the constable and the trooper in the lobby, or even if there was one. (The trooper didn't enter the courtroom.)
We just know the trooper shouldn’t have needed any urging to wear a mask.
An investigation in the matter was launched.
Ashworth said he contacted Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams, the county’s chief law enforcement officer, who said she has notified the Lancaster County Chiefs of Police Association and the state police about the court’s order.
We’re wondering what would have happened to a civilian who walked into that district court facility without a mask and then refused to put one on after being reminded one was necessary.
As Lancaster County moves into the green phase of reopening Friday, it is absolutely essential that we each do our part to limit our COVID-19 infection numbers. That means masking up when we’re in public — whether we’re in a county court facility or a grocery store or a business that's finally able to open its doors after the necessary, but seemingly endless, lockdown.
This is in no way meant to excuse the trooper, but it would help if the county commissioners mandated wearing masks in all county offices for the sake of clarity and consistency.
As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Carter Walker reported earlier this month, masks are required at the county courthouse on North Duke Street, but they’re only “strongly encouraged,” not required, at the Lancaster County Government Center on North Queen Street.
Josh Parsons, chairman of the county commissioners, cited personal liberty as a factor in that decision — which is nonsense, because U.S. law recognizes that some personal liberties (like driving without a seat belt) can be curtailed for the sake of public protection.
Wearing a mask during a lethal pandemic is a matter of public protection. And rules about wearing them — whether in businesses or court facilities — apply to everyone.