As the numbers of cases and exposures to COVID-19 climbs, the Lawrence County courthouse and related county government offices and buildings will be closing to the public for the entire holiday season.
The work in those buildings will continue operating, but the public closure will be in effect from Nov. 30 through Jan. 8.
The number of positive virus tests are increasing throughout Lawrence County and more incidences of the virus or its exposure have been reported within the government center itself and related offices.
As a result, the government departments have been instructed to implement departmental work-from-home plans, according to a directive from the commissioners and the courts.
In the event that work-from-home is not possible, department heads have been instructed to use flexible and staggered schedules to minimize the number of county employees physically present within a department at any given time, according to a news release issued Friday by the commissioners.
Employees in the Lawrence County Department of Public Safety — the 911 center — and the Lawrence County Department of Corrections — the jail — are exempt from the directive.
Individual department heads will have the discretion of allowing meetings with members of the public on an appointment-only basis, according to the news release.
Court proceedings will be limited to necessary proceedings.
Common Pleas President Judge Dominick Motto said he filed a declaration of judicial emergency Friday with the state Supreme Court in order, giving him the authority to suspend jury trials under Rule 600 — the speedy trial rule — for the December trial term. He anticipates jury trials will resume in January, and could include a homicide trial.
"The court's going to stay open" with restrictions, he said. "Number one, nobody should be allowed on the third floor unless it's necessary for a case, and family members will not be allowed upstairs unless they are directly involved in or testifying in the case."
Otherwise, the courts will continue with the usual schedule, Motto said.
He attributes the closure partly to an increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases and exposures to it throughout the government center, he said, including the Domestic Relations department, which is in a separate building.
Last week, two court employees tested positive, and then there was a third one, Motto said, adding, "it changes day to day.
"The number of courthouse employee positives or people they live with have increased to the extent that we have to have additional precautions," he said. "We want to be cautious. (The closing) doesn't affect court operations."
The commissioners advise that members of the public who need to conduct business at the courthouse or other any government offices should contact the individual departments for more information on their revised departmental operations plans.
Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts Jodi Klabon-Esoldo said she is prepared to alternate shifts among her staff and herself. The only in-person service she will honor will be marriage licenses. Couples applying must do so online, she said. Then they should make an appointment by calling her office at (724) 626-2126, to sign the documents and pay. The county website, co.lawrence.pa.us, also has filing information available.
Lawrence County Treasurer Richard L. Rapone has advised that his office, although closed, will continue to conduct county business. A dropbox for payments and other correspondence was moved near the exit doors outside of the courthouse main entrance. The box can be used for county tax payments, dog license applications, tax certification requests and small games of chance applications.
He requests that people use only checks, money orders or certified checks. Cash will not be accepted.
The dropbox is checked hourly, he said. People also can mail in payments or applications to his office, in care of 430 Court St., New Castle, Pa., 16101, and include a self-addressed stamped envelope if they want a receipt. Dog license applications for 2021 will be mailed in December.
The treasurer's office also offers these online services, and a third-party convenience charge will apply for payments. They are:
•Tax payments (a third-party convenience charge applies), co.lawrence.pa.us/taxes
•Dog licenses, www.padoglicenses.com
•Tax certifications, www.epaygov.com/tax/lawrco
•Small games of chance and bingo applications, co.lawrence.pa.us/gov/treasurers-office-lawrence county/licenseapplications-lawrence county/
•Fishing information, www.pgc.pa.gov
•Hunting information, www.fishandboat.com
All other questions and concerns may be directed to (724) 656-2124.
According to a news release by commissioner Chairman Morgan Boyd, the action is a direct response to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Lawrence County and the significant increase in hospitalized COVID-19 patients at UPMC Jameson.
Boyd would not elaborate further on any information about COVID cases in the courthouse or why the closure is not happening sooner than Nov. 30. The courthouse and government offices are closed for the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday and Friday. Boyd said Additional information related to Lawrence County’s amended COVID-19 operations plan will be released in the coming days.