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.
Inquiries for Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, through a court spokesman, were not immediately returned.
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
Also at Friday’s event, officials offered updated information on detection of the disease in Ohio.
State Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said as of 2 p.m. Friday, 13 Ohioans have tested positive. They range in age from 34 to 66 years-old, with a median age of 48.
Their illnesses date back as far as Feb. 25 and as recently as March 11. Three of them have been hospitalized.
No one with a confirmed diagnosis has died, though Acton said in other countries, deaths have lagged initial hospitalizations by three to six weeks.
Another 159 suspected cases are awaiting test results.
The disease has been detected in Cuyahoga, Trumbull, Stark, Belmont, Butler and Summit counties.
Given the instances of community transition, officials estimate more than 100,000 Ohioans are currently infected. That figure is expected to double every four to six days.
Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.