Ossining Town Court was closed last week until further notice after it was learned an attorney who had participated in court proceedings on Dec. 1 and subsequently attended a small celebratory gathering in the courtroom for outgoing Town Justice Michael Tawil tested positive for COVID-19.
Town Supervisor Dana Levenberg, who noted Tawil was unaware of the planned sendoff, stated town officials immediately contacted the Westchester County Department of Health to seek direction following the attorney’s diagnosis and initiate the contact tracing process.
“Simultaneously, we reached out to court staff to learn more about what had taken place and facilitate closing in-person, non-essential court operations as most of our court staff was required to quarantine,” Levenberg stated.
She said town officials have not been told of any court staff that have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Occurrences like this remind us how we all need to be vigilant in our day-to-day activities. As careful as we try to be, it does not guarantee we will not come in direct contact with someone who may be symptom free but subsequently learns they are positive for COVID-19,” Levenberg stated. “In an effort to prevent this from occurring again, especially as we are in the holiday season, the town has reminded its staff that under no circumstances shall there be any in-person gatherings in any town facility until further notice.”
“We are aware that these are tricky times, and we are doing our best to protect our staff and the public’s health as well as adhere to health and privacy laws and protocols,” she continued. “While we understand many would like to look for scapegoats at this time, and I am in no way defending any decisions that were made to have such a gathering, we do believe we followed the best procedures in light of the situation, will learn from this situation, and will do our best to implement those lessons going forward.”
Ossining Mayor Victoria Gearity, who mentioned the village owns the police/court facility and the town rents the court space, addressed the gathering for Tawil in a stern Facebook post.
“It never occurred to us that it was necessary to inform the people tasked with administering justice for our community that the rules apply to them too,” Gearity stated. “To be sure this doesn’t happen again in any of our buildings, this week we sent the following message to our staff and tenants: ‘Given the pandemic, we have already cancelled our annual holiday staff party. In light of the acute rise of positive COVID cases in the Village of Ossining, we regretfully are prohibiting small, in person, social gatherings in all Village-owned buildings (Village Hall, Operations Center, Community Center, Courthouse, Police Headquarters and all Village owned Firehouses) as well. This includes, but is not limited to department holiday parties, birthday celebrations, group lunches and any other unnecessary gatherings.’”
“Investigation of the recent social gathering in the courthouse is now in the hands of the County Department of Health. The town is also responsible for fulling informing the District Administrative Judge about the incident,” Gearity added. “Thank you to everyone in Ossining who is taking this threat to our lives and livelihoods very seriously. When the Governor designated us a yellow zone last month, we had the highest positivity rate in New York. Thankfully our positivity rate and number of active cases has been incrementally decreasing. But we still have a long way to go.”
Tawil, who was appointed in December 2019 to fill the unexpired term of Justice Nancy Quinn-Koba and then lost a Democratic primary in June to newly elected Town Justice Jeffrey Gasbarro, also appeared to reference the gathering in a Facebook post last week that simply stated: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Levenberg said town officials were also notified last week the Ninth Judicial District updated its operating protocols for town and village courts to restrict non-essential, in-person proceedings.
“As a result, the only area of Town Court operations affected while our staff is quarantined is taking parking ticket payments over the counter,” Levenberg stated. “Part of this is due to the fact that under State law we are not allowed to accept ticket payments online, an issue we have been trying to remedy in the State legislature for years.”