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Smoke Tests Protect Courtroom Air From COVID-19

Even as vaccines begin to protect the public from the coronavirus (COVID-19), one of the Judiciary’s biggest priorities is ensuring that the air inside courtrooms and hallways remains safe as courts schedule more in-person legal proceedings.

A new U.S. Courts video highlights a simple technique used to protect court users: a smoke test, which makes air currents inside buildings visible. The tests have helped federal courts in New York, the District of Columbia, and Maryland to ensure that employees and the public do not inadvertently inhale air exhaled by someone nearby.

Dr. Rainald Lohner, a professor of fluid dynamics at George Mason University, demonstrates the technique in the video, saying the smoke trails make clear how to keep court users appropriately separated. In-court proceedings were scaled back dramatically because of the pandemic, but courts are beginning to expand courthouse activity, such as jury trials.

In addition to the smoke tests, many courts are pumping greater volumes of outdoor air into buildings, operating special indoor filters, and using plexiglass barriers. Courts also are relying heavily on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure public safety.