On Sunday, after the publication of this story, the Franklin County Municipal Court suspended most hearings, including eviction proceedings, for three weeks.
You wouldn’t know there’s a pandemic from looking at room 11b in Franklin County Municipal Court.
There, as in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and beyond, Ohio’s court system is advancing the legal process of forcing people from their homes via eviction.
The business-as-usual rhythm of eviction courts, as public health officials estimate 110,000 Ohioans are infected with COVID-19 and markets nosedive, stands in contrast to abrupt closures of Ohio’s schools, sporting events, and mass gatherings.
Tenants’ rights advocates are pushing for a freeze on evictions in the state.
Graham Bowman, an attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, argued the crowded courtrooms themselves are conducive to spreading germs; evicting people will lead them to homeless shelters, also facing high risks of an outbreak; and the pandemic itself will spur the eviction process as people lose their hourly wages amid quarantines and shutdowns.
“The no-brainer is stopping evictions and not sending people out into the streets and into shelters,” he said. “The harder question is going to be, how do you maintain people in their housing so they don’t become desperate if this becomes a larger and longer issue.”
Melissa Benson, an attorney in the Legal Aid Society’s housing unit, shared similar concerns
For one, Franklin County’s eviction courts churn through an average of 75 cases per day, leaving a courtroom stuffed with landlords, tenants, social services workers, attorneys and court staff — easy transmission for COVID-19.
Likewise, she said businesses are likely to close as things worsen and workers without paid sick leave could wind up quarantined without any income.
“People are going to start getting evicted because of COVID-19,” she said. “That’s a chain reaction that is very predictable”
The Ohio Association for Court Administration did not respond to inquiries.
Some individual courts have adopted changes or suspended trials, but there has been no statewide action as of Friday afternoon.
Ohio’s home rule laws give individual courts autonomy. However, according to the state Supreme Court’s “Judicial Guide to Public Health,” there are exceptions.
For instance, court rules vest “ultimate authority to manage any aspect of the judiciary during an emergency in the chief justice. The chief justice can make new rules, intervene in local courts, etc. as the chief deems necessary,” the guide states.
On Friday, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, issued a letter to court officials telling them to consider items on a case-by-case basis.
“Closing the courthouse and disrupting services is not a plan,” she said. “The Supreme Court of Ohio is open and will continue to be.”
Gov. Mike DeWine said at a COVID-19 press briefing he’s looking to the judiciary for these sorts of decisions.
Susan Jagers, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center, said she’s optimistic about the moratorium push.
“The how is of course an important question, but the commitment that we’re going to do this is what we’re asking for,” she said.
Latest outbreak updates
Officials have detected 37 cases of COVID-19 in the state as of 2 p.m. Sunday. They’ve estimated more than 100,000 Ohioans are infected — a best guess that rises exponentially by the day. At least 350 people are awaiting test results, per state data.
According to data Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton provided, COVID-19 illnesses in Ohio trace to Feb. 7. Infection can predate symptoms by two to 14 days, according to the CDC.
Acton has estimated Ohio’s infected population doubles every six days, and that between 40 and 70 percent of Ohioans will be infected without mitigation such as the closures.
No one with a confirmed diagnosis has died, though Acton said in other countries, deaths have lagged initial hospitalizations by three to six weeks.
This story was updated Sunday with COVID-19 transmission data.