Court’s COVID-19 backup plan: Trials in a Darlington gym

Last week, this judge’s bench, complete with anti-COVID plastic shielding, sat on the sidelines at Harmon Baldwin Gym. PHOTO BY BOBBY BRYANT

By Bobby Bryant

The COVID-19 pandemic may push General Sessions criminal court onto a Darlington gym’s basketball court.
“Social distancing” leaves too little room in the Darlington County Courthouse’s courtrooms, so officials are preparing to hold trials at the Harmon Baldwin Gym on Sanders Street – the same site where Darlington City Council has been meeting for months for the same reason: Lots of room, even sitting 6 feet apart.
Criminal trials may be held at the gym as early as Nov. 30, says county Clerk of Court Scott Suggs. It might not be necessary to use the gym depending on the COVID-19 situation, Suggs says, but officials needed an option besides the courthouse.
“We had to have a backup plan,” says Suggs. “Out of all of our options, this made the most sense.”
City Council, at its Oct. 6 meeting at the gym, endorsed renting space for holding court there. Council started meeting at the gym after finding that “social-distancing” the benches at its usual meeting site – the courtroom at City Hall – didn’t leave room for many spectators.
When council meets at the gym, city staffers set up several dozen folding metal chairs on the basketball court, 6 feet apart, and the council members assemble at tables near the rear basketball hoop. If council needs to hold an executive session, members go into one of several rooms off the sidelines. No council meeting held at the gym so far has even come close to reaching the arena’s seating capacity.
Suggs says the Harmon Baldwin gym should be a good fit if court is held there. For one thing, it’s a one-story building – there are no elevators, and so no problems social-distancing in tight confines. The basketball court can hold several dozen socially-distanced people for selection of jury pools. Rooms off the sidelines can be chambers for a judge and meeting spaces for juries. There’s room outside for parking.
“There were other places we talked about, but we couldn’t guarantee dates,” Suggs says.
When City Council met last week at the gym, some courtroom furniture was already visible along the sidelines, including a judge’s bench outfitted with plastic COVID shields and counselors’ tables also equipped with plastic shields.
“These are different times we’re in now,” Suggs says. “This is a backup plan at this point. I would like to wake up and see that this (pandemic) has gone away.”

Author: Stephan Drew

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