By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
EL RENO – Facemasks will continue to be required for anyone in the second-floor courtrooms and hallways of the Canadian County Courthouse.
But they won’t be mandated in the district court clerk’s office on the first floor of Canadian County’s judicial building, 301 N Choctaw.
“I’ve met with the other judges,” District Judge Jack McCurdy said at the Aug. 24th county commissioners’ meeting. “My current order expires August 31 and we intend to continue the mask mandate on the second floor for sure.
“All the medical experts tell us we should (keep it in place). … We are going to listen to the science until the science tells us different.”
The first-floor District Attorney’s Office also will continue to require masks for visitors as part of COVID-19 safety protocols.
But the first-floor Court Clerk’s Office won’t follow suit.
“I think some people are beginning to feel like their personal lives are being violated by being forced to wear a mask if they’re in a public place,” Court Clerk Marie Hirst told commissioners. “This is their property. Technically, they pay for these buildings. They pay a lot of people’s salaries that work here.”
County personnel aren’t supposed to be “everybody’s babysitter … they’re grown adults,” she added.
Hirst also shared concerns about some people suffering health issues from having to wear masks for long periods.
Canadian County’s court clerk noted she’s not “afforded the luxury” of having only 10 people working in the office. There are 21 employees in her office space.
Hirst tried having half her staff work from home but found that the office fell behind accommodating the public in uploading court documents and printing files.
“We’re allowing people to do their filings via e-mail to accommodate them from having to travel or come into the office,” she said.
“We have a lot of attorneys that are practicing social distancing by sending their items via mail or e-mail, and not be present in court unless they have to be here.”
Judge McCurdy pointed to a recent county sheriff’s sale of foreclosed properties that he says reinforced the decision to require masks.
“We have no control over the number of people who show up for a sheriff’s sale,” he told commissioners. “The deputy told me we had maybe eight houses for sale and there were at least 50 people show up to buy those eight houses.
“They were shoulder-to-shoulder, every pew filled in courtroom number two for a sheriff’s sale, which is just not safe.”
Canadian County Commission Chairman Marc Hader suggested using part of the parking lot to allow people to “space out” – as was done with a recent county treasurer’s sale.
Judge McCurdy said the sheriff’s office sally port could be used for a sheriff’s sale in case of inclement weather.
McCurdy said the judges and bailiffs have received no complaints from people having to wear masks in the courthouse.
“We just haven’t had any push back from the public,” he said.
“We’ve not had any incident where we’ve had to call a deputy in the last five months to the second floor to remove somebody from the courthouse for not wearing a mask.”
But Canadian County’s court clerk said her office has “had a lot of push back” from people about masks.
“They are going to complain in my office because they don’t think we have any way to come back at them,” she said. “They feel offended that they’re being forced to wear a mask.”
Hirst has told her employees that if they want to wear a mask, they can wear a mask.
“If they feel safer wearing a mask, that’s fine,” she said.
When the courthouse reopened to the public, a glass partition was installed in the court clerk’s office – as it was in other county offices – to protect employees and the public.
Hand sanitizing stations also were placed around the courthouse and other county buildings.
Hirst credited Canadian County Commissioners for doing “everything you can to protect us from exposure.”
FOLLOW THE SIGN
A large sign in the courthouse lobby entrance instructs people on the mask requirement as directed by Canadian County’s presiding district judge. Someone who doesn’t have a mask with them is provided one.
A county sheriff’s deputy previously took the temperature of anyone entering to check if they were running a fever. But that practice ended Aug. 1.
For more than a month, masks have not been required for anyone entering the Canadian County Administration Office.
After five months, County Commission Chairman Hader believes everyone has “plenty of information” about the virus to make sound decisions on whether they should wear a face covering.
“I trust people to take personal responsibility,” the District 1 county commissioner said.
Wanting Canadian County to return to “normalcy,” Hader recommended that county sheriff’s deputies “not be the enforcers” of any mask requirement when people enter the county courthouse.
Chairman Hader believes the sheriff’s office shouldn’t “be the heavies” and instead focus on their security role. He suggested the health department could be the enforcers since “they’re more the experts on the health side of it.”
Sheriff Chris West told Judge McCurdy that he did not want it to appear that his office is the one requiring that masks be worn in the courthouse.
“After that conversation, I made a huge neon green sign,” McCurdy explained. “As you walk in, it says, ‘By order of the chief judge, you must wear a mask’.”