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Coronavirus Today: Court shutdowns and constitutional questions

Good evening. I’m Melody Petersen, and it’s Monday, April 12. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus in California and beyond.

The pandemic has shut down federal jury trials for 13 months in much of Southern California, disrupting the prosecution of hundreds of accused drug dealers, tax cheats, cybercriminals, child porn purveyors and health insurance swindlers.

The closure has clogged the courts with an unprecedented backlog of both criminal and civil cases, write my colleagues Michael Finnegan and Maura Dolan.

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While many of those charged with crimes have been free on bail as they await trial, others have remained behind bars, enduring long stretches of solitude as detainees are kept apart to minimize spread of the virus.

That didn’t sit well with U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney. So he has begun throwing out criminal charges against some of the accused.

Ronald Ware spent five months in a Santa Ana jail awaiting trial after his arrest in Brea last summer on a federal gun charge. Carney dismissed the case in January, saying the emergency rules that shut down jury trials denied Ware his right to a speedy trial.

“Nowhere in the Constitution is there an exception for times of emergency or crisis,” Carney wrote in the ruling that set Ware free.

So far, Carney has tossed criminal charges against a jewelry-store robbery suspect and defendants in three other cases for the same reason: The decision to shut down all jury trials, he found, was excessive.

Prosecutors have appealed Carney’s decisions. But an increasing number of defendants are alleging violations of their rights, casting uncertainty over their cases.

Criminal defendants have the right to a trial within a set time period. In federal court, if they invoke that right, their trial generally must start within 70 days of when charges were filed.

In many other jurisdictions, trials have moved forward despite the pandemic. The most visible example is the ongoing murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd at a time when the virus is more widespread in Minnesota than in California.

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State courts in some parts of California have also pressed ahead with trials. And Carney said he was troubled that trials were taking place safely right across the street from his Santa Ana federal court in Orange County Superior Court, and that federal grand juries were still meeting.

With nearly 20 million residents, California’s Central District is the country’s most populous federal judicial district, spanning Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Nearly 150 trials typically occur each year in its three federal courthouses.

Pretrial hearings have kept moving over the last 13 months, thanks largely to Zoom. But the strongest incentive for guilty pleas and civil settlements often comes on the eve of a trial, so many cases that might have ended in normal times have instead lumbered along.

With the recent decline in virus infections, jury summonses have been issued for federal trials to resume May 10 in Orange County. In L.A. and Riverside, the trials are expected to begin again in June.

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By the numbers

California cases, deaths and vaccinations as of 6:21 p.m. Monday:

3,680,532 confirmed cases, up 4,576 today; 60,123 deaths, up 52 today; 38% of Californians at least partially vaccinated

Track California’s coronavirus spread and vaccination efforts — including the latest numbers and how they break down — with our graphics.

14 days: Cases +14%, deaths -43%. Vaccines: 38% have had a dose, 22.3% fully vaccinated. Schools: 50% of students can return

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Across California

From San Diego to the state’s northern border, enrollment at many community colleges has plummeted during the pandemic, threatening the future of some campuses.

Systemwide, student enrollment last fall was down by more than 260,000 students compared with the fall of 2019, a 16.8% drop. Before the virus struck, enrollment in California’s community college system — the largest in the nation with about 2 million full- and part-time students — had largely been flat for the past decade.

The downturn has been steepest among male students, older students (who are often parents) and Black, Latino and Native American students.

Colleges must find creative ways to encourage students to return, said Tatiana Melguizo, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education who studies community colleges. “The community colleges are the engine of opportunity,” Melguizo said. “If they are not aggressive at reaching out to these students and creating opportunities for them to be on campus, they are going to lose these students.”

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Antonio Solorio, 22, is among those who may not return. He left Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut when the college shifted online last March to work more hours at his retail job at J.C. Penney.

A deaf-studies major, he said less one-on-one time with his instructors and technical difficulties were a regular, frustrating part of his college experience. By the fall, he had dropped all of his classes. “I went to college because people told me if you go to college, you get a better job,” Solorio said.

In other news, Los Angeles residents will this week have several new options for obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine, including a new clinic in Chinatown and a site at East Los Angeles College offering doses without appointments.

Those new sites come on the heels of the city’s announcement that residents 16 and older are eligible for a vaccine at city-run sites beginning tomorrow.

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The Chinatown site, at 711 W. College St., will make use of a hybrid format of appointments and walk-ups to ensure that residents 65 and older have access.

“This is part of our effort with L.A. County to ensure that there is more equitable distribution, because right now we know that Chinatown’s population 65-plus is behind the curve in terms of who has access to the vaccine,” said county Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda Solis.

At East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, shots will also be offered to residents without appointments. Nearly 1,000 first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be available from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The pop-up sites are intended to help people who don’t have access to the internet or to a vehicle, or who can’t go to a mass vaccination site farther away.

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And in a stunning blow to moviegoers, Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinemas will not reopen their locations.

“After shutting our doors more than a year ago, today we must share the difficult and sad news that Pacific will not be reopening its ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres locations,” the company that owns both chains said in a statement. “This was not the outcome anyone wanted, but despite a huge effort that exhausted all potential options, the company does not have a viable way forward.”

ArcLight, launched in 2002, had 11 locations, including the flagship Hollywood theater and Pacific Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard and five others in the Los Angeles Area. Pacific had six locations, all in California, including theaters in Glendale at the Americana at Brand and at the Grove shopping complex.

The company is the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, which wrecked the theatrical exhibition industry. Theaters in Los Angeles just started to reopen last month in time for the release of Warner Bros.’ “Godzilla vs. Kong.” But while large chains such as AMC reopened swiftly, smaller companies have taken longer.

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“To all the Pacific and ArcLight employees who have devoted their professional lives to making our theaters the very best places in the world to see movies: we are grateful for your service and your dedication to our customers,” Pacific Theatres added in its statement. “To our guests and members of the film industry who have made going to the movies such a magical experience over the years: our deepest thanks. It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve you.”

California reopening map showing 12 more counties in orange tier, including San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside.
A description of the four tiers California uses to determine when counties can let businesses open, based on coronavirus risk

See the latest on California’s coronavirus closures and reopenings, and the metrics that inform them, with our tracker.

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Around the nation and the world

As many as 60 countries, including some of the world’s poorest, might be stalled at the first shots of their vaccinations because nearly all deliveries through a global program intended to help them are blocked, perhaps until June.

Covax, the global initiative to provide shots to countries lacking the clout to negotiate for scarce supplies on their own, has only managed to deliver more than 25,000 doses per day to low-income countries twice in the past week. During the last two weeks, fewer than 2 million Covax doses in total were cleared for shipment to 92 countries in the developing world. That’s the same number of doses injected in Britain alone.

The head of the World Health Organization slammed the “shocking imbalance” in global COVID-19 vaccination. He said that while one in four people in rich countries had received a vaccine, only one in 500 people in poorer countries had gotten a dose.

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Last week, the agencies behind Covax — WHO, vaccines alliance GAVI and CEPI, a coalition for epidemic preparedness — celebrated their delivery of 38 million vaccines to more than 100 countries. Brook Baker, a vaccines expert at Northeastern University, said the laudatory message was misplaced. “Celebrating doses sufficient for only 19 million people, or 0.25% of global population, is tone deaf,” he said.

The urgency to ship more vaccines is clear as infections soar in many countries.

In India, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed in the country’s worst surge since the pandemic began. Yet tens of thousands of Hindu devotees gathered by the Ganges River for special prayers Monday, many of them flouting social-distancing practices.

The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism. The faithful congregate in the northern city of Haridwar and take a dip in the waters of the Ganges, which they believe will absolve them of their sins and deliver them from the cycle of birth and death.

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“We are continuously appealing to people to follow COVID-19-appropriate behavior. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible,” said Sanjay Gunjyal, a senior police officer.

Meanwhile, an emerging body of science suggests that not everyone needs two doses of COVID-19 vaccine — findings that could extend the supply and get people immunized more quickly.

Scientists are increasingly finding that a SARS-CoV-2 infection may act a lot like the first shot of the vaccine.

A study by scientists in Seattle and Montreal examined blood serum samples from people who had recovered from COVID-19 and from others who had never had a coronavirus infection. Samples were collected both before and after immunization with either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.

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The researchers found that in the COVID-19 survivors, a single dose of vaccine boosted antibody levels against several different coronavirus variants by up to a thousandfold — and that a second dose essentially offered no additional benefit. People with no history of infection had lower antibody levels after two doses of vaccine than the previously infected people had after just one.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who want to know: What should I do if I lose my COVID-19 vaccination card?

After getting your first shot, you are given a white card that includes your name, the date of your vaccination, and the type of vaccine you got, among other things.

Losing the card before your second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna shots is not a problem. Just show up at the site as scheduled with your ID in hand. The vaccine provider will be able to look up your first inoculation, including the manufacturer, in the online California Immunization Registry (CAIR), and issue you a new card.

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If you lost your card after your second dose, reach out to wherever you got your shots and ask for a replacement. Again, your information should be in the system, so it shouldn’t be a problem to get another. You can also request your vaccination record directly from CAIR.

If you booked your appointment at a city of L.A. mass vaccination site through Carbon Health, you’ll get a secure digital vaccine record called Health Pass as well as the paper card.

Times reporters recently shared some other vaccine card tips. Among them: Take a photo of the front and back of the card for your records. And never, ever laminate it.

We want to hear from you. Email us your coronavirus questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Wondering if your question’s already been answered? Check out our archive here.

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Resources

Need a vaccine? Keep in mind that supplies are limited, and getting one can be a challenge. Sign up for email updates, check your eligibility and, if you’re eligible, make an appointment where you live: City of Los Angeles | Los Angeles County | Kern County | Orange County | Riverside County | San Bernardino County | San Diego County | San Luis Obispo County | Santa Barbara County | Ventura County

Need more vaccine help? Talk to your healthcare provider. Call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at (833) 422-4255. And consult our county-by-county guides to getting vaccinated.

Practice social distancing using these tips, and wear a mask or two.

Watch for symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. Here’s what to look for and when.

Need to get tested? Here’s where you can in L.A. County and around California.

Americans are hurting in many ways. We have advice for helping kids cope, resources for people experiencing domestic abuse and a newsletter to help you make ends meet.

We’ve answered hundreds of readers’ questions. Explore them in our archive here.

For our most up-to-date coverage, visit our homepage and our Health section, get our breaking news alerts, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.


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