Judge cancels jury trials through 2020 due to Hoke’s “critical” COVID-19 status

Judge cancels jury trials through 2020 due to Hoke’s “critical” COVID-19 status

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James Webb this week canceled all jury trials in Hoke and Moore through the end of the year, citing concerns about the two counties’ high percent of positive COVID-19 tests.

The state has labeled Hoke as a “critical” county under the new COVID-19 County Alert System, unveiled Tuesday during a live-streamed press conference. (See the November 17 report here.)

Webb said in an email Wednesday that given the rise in cases, he was immediately canceling jury trials through December 31, even though state court officials had previously approved his plan for resuming trials.

“Alarmingly, yesterday the state classified Hoke County as a red county (one of 10 in the state) meaning that there is critical community spread of COVID-19 in Hoke County and classified Moore County as an orange county (one of 43 in the state) meaning that there is substantial community spread of COVID-19 in Moore County,” Webb wrote in an email to the Hoke and Moore Clerk of Superior Court offices. “With the knowledge that Chief Justice Beasley has approved my jury trial resumption plan for Judicial District 19D, I am, in the interest of public safely, effective immediately, cancelling the resumption of jury trials for Judicial District 19D for the balance of 2020.”

Webb instructed Hoke Clerk of Superior Court Evelyn McLeod to “express to the jurors the court’s appreciation for their willingness to serve,” and inform them that they were discharged from serving.

“Absent further orders of this court or Chief Justice Beasley, jury trials will resume in Judicial District 19D January 4, 2021,” Webb wrote.

No “Operation Turkey”

Some other organizations also announced a change in plans due to Hoke’s status. The Open Door Soup Kitchen, which typically partners with Operation Turkey to provide Thanksgiving meals for the hungry, won’t be able to do that this year.

“After Gov. Cooper’s message and taking into consideration of our community, Operation Turkey Fayetteville will not be providing meals. We have to take into consideration the safety of our volunteers and will plan accordingly for next year,” organizers said in an email. “The risk is too high according to the increase and spread in our case communities. I do apologize for any inconvenience.”

Hoke is third-highest in the state

Hoke County currently has the third-highest percent of positive COVID-19 tests out of all 100 North Carolina counties, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). Out of all COVID-19 tests for people living in Hoke County, 13.6 percent were positive. The numbers were “critical” enough to put Hoke in the red zone along with Alexander, Avery, Columbus, Davie, Gaston, Mitchell, Sampson, Wilkes and Wilson counties.

Hoke has seen about 200 new positive COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days, and over 1,820 cases total since the pandemic began. At least 1,600 of those people are considered recovered from the illness. The Hoke County Health Department is currently tracking over 140 known active cases of coronavirus, with five Hoke residents hospitalized this week with COVID-19.

As of Thursday, 30 people with permanent Hoke County addresses have died of causes related to COVID-19. At least three Hoke residents have died of virus-related causes so far in November, including longtime Hoke County Fall Festival Director Melissa Pittman, who died after being hospitalized with COVID-19. An employee with a residential group home in Raeford also passed away after being admitted to the hospital in late October with hypoxic respiratory failure, after testing positive for the virus, according to a Hoke County Health Department report.

Three of the 30 people who have died were residents of Autumn Care nursing home. The facility experienced an outbreak of coronavirus this fall, but has since had all employees and residents test negative. The nursing home is no longer considered on outbreak status, according to the NCDHHS.

State Recommendations

Health officials urged people in red zone counties to work together to lower the spread of COVID-19. Besides wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart in public and washing hands frequently, NCDHHS issued extra recommendations for people, businesses and local governments in critical counties like Hoke.

For residents: The state DHHS recommends Hoke residents limit mixing between households and minimize the number of people in their social circle; avoid settings where people congregate; order takeout instead of dining in at restaurants; and reducing public interactions to essential activities. Individuals who are at high risk for developing serious illness should they contract COVID-19 should consider staying at home as much as possible.

For businesses: The state urged businesses and community organizations in red zone counties to also work to stop the spread. Businesses can take steps to implement working from home/teleworking if feasible, cancel any non-essential work travel, and require employees to participate in the “Count On Me NC” safety procedure training. Manufacturing, construction, food processing and farm companies can request a consultation with NCDHHS on reducing workplace transmission by calling (919) 707-5900.

For local government: NCDHHS further suggested that public officials in red zone counties like Hoke meet with state officials to discuss plans for mitigating virus spread; work with the state to expand availability of no-cost testing for residents; work with the state to increase availability of non-congregate housing; increase messaging on the risk of serious disease for older or at-risk individuals and recommend those individuals stay at home as much as possible; adopt ordinances that allow for the use of civil penalties for enforcement of statewide restrictions; increase enforcement of mass gathering limits and masks with local law enforcement or other regulators; consider adopting local ordinances to end alcohol sales for onsite consumption at an earlier time; and consider adopting local ordinances with additional restrictions for public facing businesses.

For faith communities: The state also recommended that community and religious organizations “should avoid any in-person indoor meetings, events, worship services, or other gatherings above the indoor mass gathering limit” of 10 people.

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