A Santa Maria Superior Court trial for five men accused of murder and other crimes allegedly linked to the violent criminal gang MS-13 has been delayed again by COVID-19 concerns.

Most of the jurors returned Tuesday morning only to learn that testimony would not resume after at least one member tested positive for the virus. 

The trial involving five men began with jury selection in August and opening statements in November.

The case is connected to Operation Matador, led by the Santa Maria Police Department and involving multiple law enforcement agencies in March 2016. 

The defendants have been charged with 10 slayings and 14 attempted killings, law enforcement officers said.

On Tuesday, Judge John McGregor instructed jurors that they can expect to return Jan. 24, reminding them that he had mentioned unprecedented times earlier this summer

“We allowed for this. We planned for this,” he said, adding that they hoped a COVID-19-related delay wouldn’t happen but that the trial should end within the original one-year estimate. “I know you’re ready to go. I know we are ready to go.”

The defendants were not in court Tuesday morning.

The trial has been in recess for two weeks, since Jan. 3 following COVID-19 cases. Before that, the trial had a scheduled two-week break for the holidays.

During their brief stint in the courtroom on Tuesday, jurors also saw a different seating plan. In the wake of the COVID-19 case rate rising, court staff has reconfigured jurors’ seating to move more into the audience to create some social distancing.

The trial began with 12 jurors and 12 alternatives, more than usual because of the length.

The Santa Maria MS-13 trial and a related one in Santa Barbara were the only ones moving forward since court officials earlier this monoth called for a temporary suspension of jury trials during the spike in COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, in the Santa Barbara trial, which is scheduled to start in-person questioning of potential jurors on Jan. 25, a defense attorney sought a continuance because of COVID-19. However, Judge Michael Carrozzo denied the motion. 

Two trials will take place because court facilities were too small to accommodate the 10 defendants plus other participants. The Santa Barbara trial will have three defendants since two accepted plea deals late last year. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook