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Maryland federal courts postpone jury trials, grand juries as COVID-19 spikes

Federal jury trials and grand jury sessions have been put on hold until late January amid the latest wave of COVID-19 cases in Maryland.

In an order issued last week, Chief U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar wrote that the court’s consulting epidemiologist recommended enhanced mitigation procedures as COVID-19 infections have raged across Maryland, pushing the statewide positivity rate over 16% and setting new records for daily case totals.

The change was announced after several months of more relaxed safety protocols in federal and state courts.

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“The high rate of vaccination in the community has been a contributing factor to the court’s ability to operate fairly normally during recent months, but the introduction of the Omicron variant and the prevalence of vaccination breakthrough cases is an impediment to recovery,” Bredar wrote in the order.

The new order postpones all jury selections until Jan. 24 and requires all jury trials set to begin before that date to be rescheduled.

A grand jury selection set for Jan. 5 has been postponed until at least Jan. 24, and grand jury sessions for the week of Jan. 3 have been canceled.

The court will assess whether to hold grand jury sessions throughout January on a week-by-week basis, Bredar wrote.

A separate order also allows the use of video conferencing in some criminal cases, an authorization that lapsed in November as case rates improved. The new order also requires judges to hold civil hearings remotely when possible.

A vaccine mandate is still in place for visitors to federal courthouses in Maryland. The new order notes that anyone who is unvaccinated and cannot show a negative COVID-19 test from the previous 72 hours will not be allowed in the federal courthouses without permission from Bredar.

The same applies to anyone who is unvaccinated and has been in contact with someone with COVID-19 in the past two weeks, anyone who has been asked to self quarantine or who is showing symptoms of COVID-19, and unvaccinated people who have returned from international travel or a jail or prison in the past two weeks.