🧑‍⚖️ Quarantine power and US law

Why is President Donald Trump just making recommendations about not gathering in groups larger than 10 people, but mayors and governors are actually taking action and shutting down restaurants, bars and other establishments? It’s all about federal vs. state powers, according to The Atlantic (note: we featured a version of this article a month ago but thought it would be relevant to update it now that many in the US are under quarantine voluntarily or by local mandate). 

  • From the highest court in the land: Typically, the government can only hold citizens for wrongdoing or suspicion of wrongdoing. But the Supreme Court upheld America’s power to quarantine in 1824 and 1900, ruling, “from an early day the power of the States to enact and enforce quarantine laws for the safety and the protection of the health of their inhabitants … is beyond question.”  

  • It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, either: Healthy people can be quarantined alongside the sick. And the government can also require medical exams and vaccinations (take that anti-vaxxers!).

Quarantine enforcement resides with states and localities 

The Feds have jurisdiction at the borders. They can block foreigners from entry and force American citizens to enter quarantine (they cannot turn American citizens away). It’s up to state and local governments to enforce -- or disregard -- federal quarantine guidelines. Call it public health federalism.

That’s in part why Trump has been making recommendations, and San Francisco and other Bay Area municipalities are among the local governments that have acted. In San Francisco, residents are no longer allowed to leave their homes except for essential services.    

The Verdict 

A federal quarantine may yet be called, but it will be up to local states and municipalities to enforce it.