B.C. woman questions courtroom masking policy over fears of airborne spread of COVID-19

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A Kelowna woman is worried about safe access to justice in B.C.’s provincial courtrooms after witnessing what she describes as very inconsistent mask wearing by courtroom officials and lawyers during a hearing she attended at the city’s courthouse.

Victoria Chung and lawyer Kyla Lee are calling for updated COVID-19 protocols in B.C. courtrooms. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

A Kelowna, B.C., woman is worried about safe access to justice in B.C.’s provincial courtrooms after witnessing what she describes as very inconsistent mask wearing by courtroom officials and lawyers during hearings she attended at the city’s courthouse.

Victoria Chung, a litigant in a matter before the Kelowna Provincial Court, said she is “overwhelmed with feeling unsafe” at the prospect of attending a hearing for a full day at the courthouse this week.

Her concerns are centred around the inconsistent mask usage she said she saw when attending court last fall and in February, especially considering the recent spread of COVID-19 variants of concern in B.C., she said.

  • Employer not doing enough to protect courthouse staff, union says, after 8 sheriffs test positive for COVID-19

“What I witnessed is that the judge, the clerk, the lawyers and the witnesses were all unmasked at the front of the room,” Chung said in an interview with CBC News.

“The protections in place included some surfacing cleaning and Plexiglas barriers. But Plexiglas barriers don’t protect well against airborne spread.”

The B.C. Centre of Disease Control (BCCDC) has updated its information on how COVID-19 spreads to include respiratory droplets.

We have updated the information about how COVID-19 spreads. #COVID19 spreads from a person with COVID-19 to others through larger droplets and smaller droplets known as aerosols. https://t.co/hzGPHlrz3I
1/4 pic.twitter.com/1HD3hMzRTS

—@CDCofBC

The Provincial Court of B.C. lists its COVID safety policy on its website, which includes requirements for people to wear masks in common areas such as hallways, lobbies, washrooms and entrance lobbies.

The policy states that people attending court are also “required to wear a face mask or face covering in courtrooms unless the presiding judge, justice, master or registrar directs otherwise.”

That last provision in the policy is what concerns Chung the most, she said.  

“The judge and the clerk were unmasked the entire time and the lawyers unmasked as soon as they came in — before the judge came into the room, which told me that is the common practice in the courtroom.”

Chung said she has raised her concerns with the Kelowna courthouse, sheriffs, lawyers and WorkSafeBC.

Mask wearing at the discretion of judges

In a written statement, the Office of the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of B.C. listed the safety measures implemented in courthouses and courtrooms which include enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of public spaces, Plexiglas barriers, handwashing stations and sanitizer, signs to promote physical distancing and a screening process for people entering the courthouse.

“Individual judges and justices retain their common law authority to make directions about the proceedings in their courtrooms, including when they will direct participants to remove masks,” the statement reads.

Mask wearing in courtrooms ‘a mixed bag’

Chung isn’t the only one who is questioning safety in B.C. courthouses.

“It appears to be a complete mixed bag depending on who the justice is, whether or not masks are going to be worn in the actual courtroom,” said Kyla Lee, a Vancouver based lawyer.

“Oftentimes, I see justices and judges come into the courtroom not wearing masks and this tends to be accepted as a signal that other people can remove their masks when they are speaking.”

Lee, who caught COVID-19 last year early in the pandemic, has spoken out publicly about concerns over the safety of B.C. courthouses during the pandemic, including the screening procedures at the Kelowna courthouse.

A little while ago, I was in Kelowna for traffic court. Kelowna has the fun night court running, so you can show up at night and not interrupt your day. Plus fewer people. It’s great.

Let me tell you what wasn’t great.

—@IRPlawyer

“Courtrooms themselves are notoriously poorly ventilated. They don’t have windows that you can open to bring in airflow,” Lee said.

“It makes me very concerned every time I am in a courtroom where somebody is not wearing a mask that I am exposing myself to an unnecessary risk.”

Like Chung, Lee would like to see the Provincial Court of B.C. update its policies on face coverings in courtrooms to mandate mask wearing, except for the time it takes to identify a person. 

Last month, the BCCDC updated its guidance for B.C. courthouses during the pandemic saying “current guidelines with respect to infection prevention and control measures are effective to deal with variants of concern, additional measures beyond those already in use are not necessary.” 

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