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York judicial center workers 'do not have a right to make me sick,' paralegal says

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York-area paralegal Valicia Garrett gave employees in the York County Prothonotary's Office an ultimatum when she went there on business Monday.

"I said, 'I am not going to be served by somebody who doesn’t have a mask,'" she recounted. "And I said, 'I'm serious.'"

In response, the workers all looked to their supervisor, she told The York Dispatch. None was wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to Garrett.

"I think they were trying to make me uncomfortable," she said. "I'm normally a mild person. But ... they do not have a right to make me sick."

One worker did don a mask before coming to the counter, she said.

"I intend to do that every week when I have to go in," Garrett said, adding she hopes others do the same.

She's been complaining since June to prothonotary employees, but the behavior hasn't changed — even in the wake of one worker testing positive for the coronavirus. York County officials have confirmed a judicial center employee has the virus but won't  confirm it's the office of the prothonotary, which handles civil cases and issues.

Garrett is among the legal professionals whose work takes them inside the York County Judicial Center regularly and who are concerned about their safety because so many people inside either don't wear masks or wear them improperly — both county employees and the public.

York County Prothonotary Allison Blew has not returned messages seeking comment and has so far not responded to a number of emailed questions.

Sheriff's office: Cathy Smith of Manchester Township said she felt contaminated after two of the three York County Sheriff's Office workers who assisted her Tuesday did so without masks.

Both the prothonotary's and sheriff's offices now have hard plastic sheets hung vertically above their public counters to prevent the spread of infections, as do other offices in the building, but there are large gaps above, below and on both sides of the sheets. 

"I found it very offensive," said Smith, who was in the office to be fingerprinted as part of a guardianship petition. Also, she said she's expecting a grandchild soon and had hoped to hold the baby right away rather than having to first isolate herself.

York County Prothonotary Allison Blew speaks with Judge Clyde Vedder at a naturalization ceremony on the steps of the York County Administrative Center Tuesday, May 12, 2020. Bill Kalina photo

Smith said it's as if someone needs to stand in front of the judicial center with a sandwich board urging citizens to demand employees wear masks at public counters.

She spoke with Sheriff Rich Keuerleber on Tuesday and said he told her he can't force people with medical conditions to wear masks. He also told her his workers were 6 feet from where a citizen would stand at the counter, according to Smith.

"It looked more like about 4½ feet to me," she said, adding she told the sheriff that employees who can't wear masks shouldn't be the ones assigned to front-counter duty in his office.

"I know masks aren't perfect ... but it's one of the best solutions we have," Smith said.

Legal community: Victoria Connor, CEO of the York County Bar Association, confirmed some of their 525 members are concerned about the lack of mask-wearing in public areas of the judicial center, despite mandatory mask-wearing orders from York County Common Pleas President Judge Joseph C. Adams and the state's health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.

"The bar association did raise the question of mask-wearing in the courthouse" on behalf of its members, which include attorneys, judges, paralegals and others in the legal field, Connor said. "We want everyone to feel safe when they're in the judicial center. ... I think Judge Adams and (court administrator) Paul Crouse have done their best to make that happen."

Keuerleber has said his deputies check the temperatures of everyone entering the building, turn away those with fevers and instruct people that masks are mandatory.

But once county employees and citizens get past the front-entrance security check, they can take off their masks and no one will challenge them. The sheriff said he has not instructed his deputies to approach violators because if they have a medical condition, it could amount to harassment.

'Ridiculous': Garrett said she's been going to the prothonotary's office at least once a week since mid-June and had never seen a worker there don a mask to deal with members of the public until she demanded it  Monday.

Richard P. Keuerleber speaks after taking the oath of office as York County Sheriff during a ceremony at the York County Administrative Center Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Oaths of office were administered to county and court officials. Bill Kalina photo

She said she wears a mask — despite the fact that her asthma makes that difficult —because protecting others is the right thing to do.

"Those (plastic) shields are worthless, in my opinion," she said. "I am a Republican, and I have to say, I'm embarrassed. There comes a point in time where this becomes ridiculous. ... This is not a political issue. This is a public health issue, in my opinion."

Blew and Keuerleber are Republicans.

Garrett said she believes mask-wearing has been politicized and opined that years ago, "you rolled up your sleeve and did what you could for the betterment of others."

"Why can we not do that today?" she asked.

'Scary times': Anne Zerbe, president of the York County Bar Association, said the association has worked with York County's judiciary to spread the word about mask-wearing and to educate members.

JUDICIAL CENTER

"Certainly these are really challenging and scary times for everyone," she said, adding that those who refuse to wear masks for no legitimate reason put everyone else "in a precarious situation."

She said row officers, who are elected officials, have a significant amount of discretion in determining what's best for their own employees.

"We certainly don't want to go backwards," Zerbe said. "There is medical and scientific evidence to support wearing masks. Widespread mask-wearing could save billions of dollars ... so we can reopen our economy."

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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