Amid a growing health crisis surrounding the continued spread of COVID-19, there has been a rising number of instances of travel disruption and quarantine. Cruise ships are forced to stay off the coast for days as officials on shore debate what to do with them. People are being forced into mandatory isolation and quarantine on military bases after reentering the country. Many people do not know when they will be able to go back to their homes. All of this has raised the question, is this legal?
My first reaction to hearing about hundreds of US citizens shipped to military bases around the country, “being placed,” for isolation for two weeks before being allowed to go home was that this could not be legal. It goes against how I usually see America and the West in terms of being able to keep a free and open society in the face of crises. But there are laws in place that dictate government behavior in times like this, and these measures are legal.
In terms of the cruise ships such as the Diamond Princess and the Grand Princess, both of which were held off the coast for days before being allowed to dock, they are being treated as entities trying to enter the United States during a health emergency. The possibility of infectious disease on board gives the federal government a lot of power in how to handle the situation and what to do with the people aboard. According to the CDC, the federal government has the authority to use “quarantine and isolation at US ports of entry.”
The actions of the federal government, in this case, are legal, but if someone were to challenge the order, enforcement would require a Federal Quarantine Order. So far, it seems like all of the American passengers are taking the news about being further quarantined in stride. Still, if they were to protest, an official order could be drawn up to enforce the quarantine legally.
A CDC issued Federal Quarantine Order was given January 31st, 2020, regarding the Americans who were evacuated from China at the start of the outbreak. The order laid out a time frame, health procedures that were going to be performed as well as the justification for the order itself. Reading in part:
“This legal order will protect the health of the repatriated citizens, their families, and their communities. These individuals will continue to be housed at the March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California. Medical staff will continue to monitor the health of each traveler, including temperature checks and observation for respiratory symptoms. If an individual presents symptoms, medical care will be readily available. Even if a screening test comes back negative from CDC’s laboratory results, it does not conclusively mean an individual is at no risk of developing the disease over the likely 14-day incubation period.”
These orders give the government a mandate on how to treat the citizens in question and provide people with a written layout of what they can expect. Without these orders, people are technically subjecting themselves to a voluntary government run quarantine. The CDC has drafted a generic order of quarantine specifically for this strain of novel coronavirus that can be filled out and issued to individual persons if necessary.
The actions being taken against these cruise ships are legal since these ships were outside of the United States and trying to bring people back into the country from at sea. What about a large scale quarantine similar to ones happening in Italy and China where millions of people are being ordered to stay in their homes. Would a quarantine like that be legal here in the United States?
The answer again is yes. According to the CDC, while seldomly used, large scale isolation and quarantine enforcement are legal if the situation warrants it. The last time the United States issued a mass quarantine order was during the Spanish Flu pandemic that took place in 1918. That was the last major global pandemic and is a disease that many are comparing COVID-19 to.
The CDC is the entity that would be in charge of issuing and enforcing any quarantine measures coming from the federal government. Local and state governments could potentially order their own as well but are not likely to do so without the approval or guidance of the CDC.
The CDC could issue a similar mass quarantine order today if it deemed it necessary for the health and safety of the American public. This would be a decision made by experts and health officials from within the CDC working with the US Department of Health to make an informed decision.
If a mass quarantine was issued, the CDC could compel local and state governments, including police, to enforce the quarantine. Breaking a mandatory quarantine could result in fines or incarceration according to the CDC. These are all actions that the government could take during the event of a public health emergency. It has not gotten to that point yet, and it might never get to that point here in the United States.
The thought of quarantines is scary, and they have sparked a lot of anxiety and panic around the globe recently. It is good to know the legal mechanisms behind them and to watch closely what is happening around the world so we know what to expect if anything like that were to happen here. In the meantime, know your rights, know the law and check with the CDC for any additional information or official statements.