Federal courts impose new COVID-19 restrictions amid surge


 When Sigal Chattah goes to federal court to challenge a school mask mandate issued by the governor of Nevada, she’ll likely be required to wear the very thing she’s arguing against: a mask.

That’s because U.S. District Court in Las Vegas and other courts where plaintiffs are demanding their freedoms from masking and COVID-19 vaccinations require everyone to wear masks. Just as in-person hearings and trials resumed at courthouses around the country, a surge of coronavirus cases sparked by the delta variant has prompted some federal courts to impose new restrictions and requirements for mask-wearing and vaccinations.

“The whole situation is very ironic,” said Chattah, a Republican candidate for state attorney general who is representing two parents in a lawsuit that charges a mask mandate ordered by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak is unconstitutional.

The Democratic governor’s order requires students and school employees in the Las Vegas and Reno areas to wear masks on buses and inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The lawsuit challenging them calls the governor’s orders “draconian” and says they will inflict emotional distress on schoolchildren and their parents.

Other federal courts re-imposing virus restrictions have also seen lawsuits filed or heard cases challenging public health measures.

At the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, an order went into effect Monday requiring everyone who enters the court’s buildings to verify their vaccination status. Fully vaccinated people must sign a statement “attesting to the truthfulness” of their responses, and everyone who enters must wear a mask. Visitors who aren’t fully vaccinated will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last three days, while those who work there and aren’t fully vaccinated must be tested at least once a week.

This is the same circuit where a three-judge panel ruled in July that Florida-based cruise ships did not have to adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 safety rules.

In Denver, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week began limiting access to its courthouse to fully vaccinated people only. The court’s order requires unvaccinated attorneys who are scheduled to present oral arguments to file a motion to appear via video. Unvaccinated people who want to file documents in person must use a drop box located just inside the front door of the courthouse.

And in Texas, all employees and on-site contractors of the U.S. District and Bankruptcy Courts for the Southern District are now required to show proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results twice a week.

“Our hopes are to just make sure everyone is as safe as possible. We hope that’s the effect of the order,”” said Nathan Ochsner, Clerk of Court.

“The court is obviously very concerned about safety, not just for our employees, but the people we have contact with,” he said.

Several other federal courts have revived old requirements that were relaxed earlier this summer when new cases were plummeting as vaccination rates increased.

In Salt Lake City, everyone who enters U.S. District Court must wear a mask again after the requirement had been dropped for about two months in line with CDC guidance. Court authorities reinstated the mask policy as the delta variant took hold, said Clerk of Court D. Mark Jones.

That’s different from most of the rest of Utah, a conservative state where there’s no statewide mask mandate and even schools are banned from setting their own mandates.

In New Orleans, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a mask mandate on July 30, requiring everyone — regardless of their vaccination status — to wear a mask in public areas of the courthouse. In Richmond, Virginia, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had planned to resume in-person oral arguments next month, but reversed course and decided to continue holding remote arguments because of the surge.

Many of the revised policies cite the updated guidance issued late last month by CDC as infection rates soared due to the highly contagious delta variant. The CDC said fully vaccinated people should return to wearing masks in indoor public places in communities where the virus is spreading quickly. It also recommended that all teachers, students and staff at schools wear masks, even if they are fully vaccinated, setting off a firestorm of protests and lawsuits as schools across the country prepare to reopen.

The sudden increase in coronavirus cases has also had other ramifications in federal courts. In West Texas, concerns about the surge recently ground many court functions to a halt. On Aug. 9, the chief federal district judge in San Antonio suspended jury trials and grand jury proceedings until Oct. 3, although bench trials, sentencings and some other hearings will continue.

Along with other cases, the move is likely to slow the federal investigation into corruption claims against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The probe into bribery and abuse-of-office allegations is being led by a San Antonio-based federal prosecutor who’s been using a grand jury in the city to issue subpoenas, including for records of renovations made to the Paxton’s million-dollar home in Austin.

Paxton, who is running for re-election in a competitive Republican primary, has broadly denied the allegations from eight of his former top deputies that he used his office to help a wealthy donor.

In New York City, the judge in the federal sex trafficking trial of R&B star R. Kelly has ruled that only the attorneys, jurors and defendant are allowed in the courtroom, while the public, including the press, must watch live video feeds of the proceedings from overflow courtrooms. On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly said anyone sitting in the area of the courtroom near the bench — including prosecutors, Kelly and his lawyers — would have to start wearing masks out of an abundance of caution after she consulted with an epidemiologist. They had not been required to wear masks on Wednesday during the first day of testimony. The jury has been masked all along and seated six feet apart where the audience normally sits.

In Florida, frequent flyer Lucas Wall is suing the CDC and seven airlines over the federal mask mandate on flights, alleging the requirement left him stranded at his mother’s home in that state during the pandemic. In his lawsuits, he argues that the mandate discriminates against people who cannot wear masks because of medical conditions, such as the anxiety disorder he contends with. Wall, who is representing himself in the lawsuits, said he plans to ask for an exemption from the mask requirement in U.S. District Court in Orlando if he is required to make in-person arguments in court.

“It’s completely preposterous that someone who is suing to overturn a mask mandate and medically can’t wear a mask would be ordered to go into court wearing a mask to argue his case against mask mandates,” Wall said.