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Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force continues to monitor the health crisis and update its website

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Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force continues to monitor the health crisis and update its website
Sia Baker-Barnes

Sia Baker-Barnes

Only a few months ago, the COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force, under new leadership and given a new mission, was looking forward to emphasizing the “recovery” in its name.

But that was before the final week of July, when Florida set a daily record of more than 22,000 new COVID cases. Or August 3 when the state broke another record with 11,500 hospitalizations.

On the same day, task force co-chairs Sia Baker-Barnes and Jay Kim were urging Bar members to keep a close eye on the task force’s COVID-19 Information and Resources webpage.

“Obviously, we’re closing monitoring the situation, but it feels like de ja vu all over again,” Kim said.

“Our hope was that we would be out of this thing, but we’re not,” Baker-Barnes said. “We’ve got to figure out how to keep our courts functioning, keep our clients managed and happy, and try to stay sane throughout all of this.”

Immediate past President Dori Foster-Morales formed the task force in the summer of 2019 to find ways to help members cope with the health emergency and its economic fallout.

Jay Kim

Jay Kim

The panel, then under the leadership of then President-elect Michael Tanner, quickly created the COVID-19 Information and Resources webpage.

Packed with the latest court-related and health news, as well as links to employment and other resources, the page has proven an effective communication tool, and a convenient one-stop shop for lawyers and the public.

Kim and Baker-Barnes noted that it lists the latest administrative orders issued by chief judges in response to rising infection rates.

Kim said infection control measures are changing in the 17th Circuit, and Baker-Barnes noted that masks are once again mandatory in courtrooms in the 15th Circuit.

“I’m in Palm Beach County, we just had a new AO come out yesterday from our chief judge, I know Miami did, I know many circuits have, and the website is a great place where you can get all of that information in one spot,” she said.

During the height of the pandemic, the task force, among other things, urged the Board of Governors to suspend late fees, recruited financial and other services to the Member Benefits Program, created a best-practice guide for remote court proceedings, and studied which court proceedings were most appropriate to conduct remotely after the pandemic subsides.

Kim, a managing partner with Kim Vaughn Lerner, chaired the Board Technology Committee that worked closely with the task force to develop some of the projects, including the Best Practices Guide for Remote Proceedings, and The Florida Bar Tech Support Helpline, which is designed to help mostly solo and small-firm practitioners with routine problems.

Kim’s successor, Board Technology Committee Chair Paige Greenlee, recently told the board that her committee is negotiating to make the Tech Support Helpline a member benefit.

Baker-Barnes, a partner with Searcy, Denney, Scarola, Barnhart and Shipley, served on the pandemic task force and led a subcommittee charged with managing the webpage and keeping it regularly updated with the latest health developments, including the search for a vaccine.

When Tanner assumed the presidency in June, COVID-19 was waning and courthouses were reopening to the public. He urged the board to continue the task force another year, appointed Baker-Barnes and Kim co-chairs and gave the panel three goals:

• Keeping the Bar abreast of the latest developments in the Supreme Court’s pandemic recovery plan.

• Studying the potential for creating an automated platform for the resolution of civil disputes worth less than $1,000.

• Continuing to monitor the health crisis and populating the website.

By the time the repurposed task force held its first meeting last month, the COVID-19 surge was in full force.

“I said to everyone, if you had asked me a month ago, would we be continuing these regular medical updates, I would have said no,” Baker-Barnes said. “Now we feel it’s critically important to keep it going, and to keep our members informed.”

Kim and Baker-Barnes are confident the task force will complete its work by the end of the Bar year.

Kim said the automated platform could be a good way to help consumers resolve disputes over small personal loans, or consumer issues, such as customer who claims his laptop was destroyed by the repair shop.

“You have two choices, you go to court as a pro se litigant, or you just forget about it,” Kim said. “This will definitely fill an unmet need.”

Baker-Barnes uses the example of a broken kitchen appliance.

“You buy a refrigerator that doesn’t work, and the company is not cooperating, whether it’s replacing the fridge or getting your money back,” she said. “Maybe there’s an online platform statewide that allows you to submit your claim, electronically, with documents only, and allows the other side to submit a response, and ultimately provides a resolution online without you ever having to set foot in a courtroom.”

The committee has already studied systems in other states and the United Kingdom, but has much more research to do, Baker-Barnes said.

“We certainly have our work cut out for us, but we’re really excited about the opportunity to do this,” she said. “One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is that technology is here to stay.”

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