A juror tested positive for COVID-19 within days of participating in a trial in Carlton County last week, officials confirmed to the News Tribune on Tuesday.

The diagnoses, the first publicly known case tied to a court proceeding in the Northland, would appear to be a major test of the extensive protocols put in place to resume Northeastern Minnesota jury trials as of late August.

Officials were notified Sunday of the positive test, Carlton County Coordinator Dennis Genereau said. The juror was last in the courthouse Wednesday. It was not clear when the test was administered, but research suggests a person may be most contagious in the days leading up to symptom onset.

"Efforts were made throughout the trial to keep all of the jurors socially distanced and masked, and we have no information at this time to indicate that anyone else involved in the trial has tested positive," Genereau wrote in a notice to county and court personnel Monday.

When the Minnesota Judicial Council authorized the resumption of jury trials in the 6th Judicial District after a five-month hiatus, it came with a number of significant changes to physical facilities, courtroom procedures and cleaning practices.

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Only one trial can be held at any given time in each of the six courthouses of the four-county district. All jurors, attorneys and court personnel are required to wear masks at all times, and courtrooms have been rearranged to accommodate spaced-out seating.

In that regard, Genereau said Carlton County benefits from having the largest courtroom in the district. The old jury box has been removed to spread out counsel tables, while jurors are spaced out in the public gallery area. Jurors also now use the courtroom to deliberate.

The third-floor courtroom of the Carlton County Courthouse in Carlton is the largest courtroom in the 6th Judicial District. For that reason, the courtroom has been designated for any grand jury trials that need to be held during the pandemic. (2020 file / Pine Journal)
The third-floor courtroom of the Carlton County Courthouse in Carlton is the largest courtroom in the 6th Judicial District. For that reason, the courtroom has been designated for any grand jury trials that need to be held during the pandemic. (2020 file / Pine Journal)

"It's very different looking," Genereau, a former prosecutor, said. "The goal is create as little disruption as possible for the trial process so that they can make sure they have trials that are fair and impartial for the defendant, but also afford everyone the opportunity to be safe."

Reiterating the protocols in place, 6th District Chief Judge Michael Cuzzo said the Judicial Branch has a notification process for anyone identified as having been in close contact with the COVID-19-positive person.

"Carlton County, as one of our justice partners, has done a great job of assisting us in ensuring that our facilities are cleaned and well-marked for the social distancing measures required in the pandemic," Cuzzo and District Administrator Sara Taylor said in a statement to the News Tribune.

"The courts will continue to evaluate its operations during the ongoing pandemic and adapt our policies and procedures as needed to balance access to justice with the protection of public health and safety."

Up until recently, Genereau said, the sheriff's office had a bailiff stationed at the courthouse entrance to screen for symptoms of people entering the building. But he said the county lacks the resources to keep that up, especially with the number of people arriving for a jury trial, as the county board has implemented a hiring freeze at the administration's request.

"When you look at the financial condition of the country, so to speak, we're not immune," he said.

Genereau said that while the county has a "pretty regimented and intense cleaning protocol" in place, custodians performed another deep clean of the courthouse Monday. He said the courtrooms and jail have an air-circulation system that uses filters to capture and eliminate the virus.

For areas of the courthouse and adjoining annex that lack appropriate air-handling systems, Genereau said the county has ordered more than two dozen air-purification units that utilize UV light. The units, which he said were covered by Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, are expected to arrive in a few weeks.