No trials, several Whitfield County courthouse offices closed next week after COVID-19 diagnoses

File/Daily Citizen-News

The Whitfield County Tax Commissioner's Office in the courthouse will be closed to the public next week. Tax Commissioner Danny Sane said he has had no new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in his office, but with other courthouses offices closed because people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 he is going to take the opportunity to disinfect the office.

Whitfield County Tax Commissioner Danny Sane said Friday he has had no cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in his office. But in an abundance of caution, his office, located in the county courthouse, will be closed to the public next week.

"All of our employees are healthy," he said. "We are not going home. We'll still be at work. We'll be answering phones, processing things that are mailed in."

But Sane said that with other offices in the courthouse closed he is going to take the opportunity to "wipe everything down, disinfect everything." He said the staff will also take the opportunity to pack some things for a planned January move into the tax office's new location at 1013 Riverburch Parkway, just off the north bypass.

Sane said anyone needing help from the Tax Commissioner's Office can call (706) 275-7510.

The Whitfield County Tax Assessor's Office will also be closed to the public next week. But Chief Appraiser Ashley O'Donald said staff will still be at work. He said anyone needing assistance can call (706) 275-7410.

Whitfield County Superior Court will hold no trials next week, after the clerk of Superior Court said it will be closed until Nov. 23 because of exposure to COVID-19.

"We will not be able to file cases or other legal documents until (Nov. 23)," said District Attorney Bert Poston. "That’s going to limit what we can do in court next week."

"Court next week is going to be limited to jail cases only and all done by video to limit the number of people in the courtroom," Poston said. "That may carry over to the first part of Thanksgiving week but I've not talked to all of the judges yet."

Clerk of Superior Court Melica Kendrick did not immediately return an email message on Friday.

Poston said that with no trials scheduled he will have more of his staff working from home. He said that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak he would have about 25 working in his office in the county courthouse.

"We have been as low as one-quarter staffing, maybe seven people, those directly involved in court that week, and that's probably what we'll go back to through Thanksgiving," he said. "Lately we've been near-full, probably three-quarters at least."

He said he has encouraged employees to work at home when they can to reduce the chances of exposure to COVID-19 in the office.

"That's generally the ones who don't have court for at least a couple of weeks and can take files home with them to work up," he said. "Most of the attorneys either have laptops or IT (information technology) has helped us set them up to remote in from a home computer to access resources they'd normally have here at the office. We've also limited how many non-employees we let in the office for meetings and such, and we wear masks in the office except when we're alone in our own private offices."

A statement from Superior Court judges said that in addition to jury trials being canceled next week, contested domestic matters have been suspended for the week and ex parte hearings (where one person seeks an urgent action by the court) and temporary protective order requests will be heard by Zoom. The statement said that in the case of individuals seeking protective orders who are representing themselves and do not have access to Zoom, the court will work with them to "find a safe solution."

The clerk of Superior Court's office is not the only office in the courthouse that will be closed next week.

Magistrate Court will be closed to the public until Nov. 30 after Chief Magistrate Chris Griffin, Magistrate Judge Gayle Gazaway and other court employees were diagnosed with COVID-19. Griffin has been hospitalized.

All business except warrant applications by law enforcement and first appearance hearings, which are done by video, is on hold while the court is closed to the public.

What Whitfield County non-emergency offices and departments are doing to minimize exposure to COVID-19

Superior Court: Employees of Superior Court will be working from home with the exception of the court days referenced below.

"The judges of the Superior Court of Whitfield County recognize our community has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. As a result, the office of the clerk of Superior Court and the Magistrate Court of Whitfield County currently have reduced operations due to COVID-19 exposure. As Superior Court judges, we must balance our efforts to slow the transmission of COVID-19 in the courthouse and to protect the public with our duty to maintain access to the court and the efficient administration of justice. Therefore, for the week of Nov. 16-20, the court is implementing the following procedures:

"1. Jury trials for the week of Nov. 16, 2020, are canceled.

"2. Nov. 17 and 20, 2020, will be jail cases only via closed circuit.

"3. Uncontested divorces: Uncontested divorce may be done by judgment on the pleadings in compliance with O.C.G.A 9-11-12.

"4. Mediation: The court’s standing order on mediation remains in effect. No mediations will be held at the courthouse but may be done by remote means in the discretion of the mediators and parties.

"5. Contested domestics: Contested domestic matters will be suspended for the week of Nov. 16-20, 2020.

"6. Ex parte hearings: Ex parte hearings shall be heard via Zoom. Counsel shall contact the court administrator’s office to schedule a time. The court administrator’s office may be contacted via email to bbutler@whitfieldcountyga.com or jdean@whitfieldcountyga.com.

"7. Temporary protective orders: To the extent possible, ex parte TPOs will be heard via Zoom subject to the same procedures as other ex parte matters. Domestic violence advocates shall contact the court administrator’s office via email as set forth in the preceding paragraph for scheduling. In the event the law requires a two-party hearing during this week, that hearing will also be heard via Zoom unless deemed otherwise necessary by the assigned judge. The court recognizes that many TPO cases involve pro se parties who may not have the Zoom app available and will work with the parties to find a safe solution.

"8. Accountability courts: Each accountability court is unique and designed for a different population. Therefore the judge of each accountability court will set the procedures for their court during this week.

"These procedures will remain in effect from Nov. 16-20, 2020, inclusive, unless otherwise extended by the court."

Tax commissioner: The tag and property tax offices will be closed to the public Monday through Friday. The office closure may be extended. Office staff will be available via phone at (706) 275-7510 and email at wctco@whitfieldcountyga.com or you may visit www.whitfieldpay.com. The drop box is still available in front of the courthouse. Items left in the drop box must include a contact phone number. Do not leave cash.

Probate Court: Available by appointment only.

Magistrate Court: Currently closed to the public due to exposure. Will reopen on Nov. 30.

Clerk of Superior Court's office: Currently closed to the public due to exposure. Will reopen on Nov. 23.

Tax Assessors: Will be working from home. Minimum staff at the office until Nov. 27.

Juvenile Court: Only essential duties. Staggered staff from Nov. 17 to Nov. 27.

Finances: Staggered staff.

Information technology: Staggered staff.

Human Resources: Staggered staff.

District attorney and public defender: Will follow Superior Court guidance.

Buildings & Grounds: Staggered staff.

Board of Commissioners: Staggered staff.

Source: Whitfield County government.

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