COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Six months after shutting down South Carolina’s court system in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the state's top jurist now says courts may resume in-person operations with considerations for trying to contain COVID-19.

In an order released Monday, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Beatty wrote that courts may return to normal scheduling, docket management and in-person hearings as of Sept. 21. But, the top judge noted that judges can still decide to use remote communication technology for hearings at their discretion. Consent for such hearings is not required by involved parties or their attorneys.

In mid-March, Beatty ordered a shutdown of all in-person judicial business in the state's court system, as part of a broad effort to stem the spread of the pandemic. Since then, judges at the circuit and family court levels have held about 11,000 online hearings via WebEx, he wrote.

Those operations have actually been adopted by the high court itself, which in May held its first-ever virtual oral argument in a case over voting access concerns related to the pandemic.

Last month, the state held its first jury trial since the system-wide shutdown. To ensure his guidelines on pandemic-era trials were followed, Beatty sat in the back of a courtroom in Laurens County as a man went on trial for murder related to an October 2018 stabbing death. In addition to masks being required, jurors were spread out, and a glass shield was placed around the witness stand. Only three spectators could sit in any one row, outside of the families of the defendant and the victim.

Asking all counties to submit plans for jury trials by Sept. 18, Beatty said Monday that those operations can proceed once those plans have been approved.

Beatty's order sets out a variety of specific guidelines for how court business should be conducted broadly, including staggering hearing times to limit the number of people in any courtroom or common courthouse area at the same time. Given that such scheduling will make it possible to hold fewer hearings per day, Beatty urged judges to consider ruling on motions without holding hearings.

South Carolina’s rate of COVID-19 infection has dropped significantly since it nearly led the country in July. The state is currently seeing an average of about 870 cases a day, down from the seven-day average peak of nearly 1,950 cases in mid-July.

But since students have returned to schools and colleges, the state has seen cases rise again.

Beatty noted that he may have to make further changes to keep the courts open and safe as the pandemic remains ongoing.

“As we have seen thus far in 2020, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been unprecedented and unpredictable,” Beatty wrote. “I will continue to monitor court operations and make alterations should the need arise statewide or in a particular judicial circuit.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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