Coronavirus: Can You Be Forced Into Quarantine?

Quarantine on a Cruise Ship

Getty A man waves from a bus carrying passengers who disembarked the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Federal and state governments are passing a number of new regulations to try to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. A lot has been said about self-quarantine and situations when individuals should be quarantined, but what is the law around the matter? What happens if an individual refuses to go into quarantine — can they be forced to do so?

The CDC has some guidelines on isolation and quarantine on their website. There is a distinction between the terms isolation and quarantine. Isolation refers to the separation of sick people with a “quarantinable communicable disease” from those who are not sick, whereas quarantine means separating and restricting the movement of people who have been exposed to COVID-19 to see if they actually contracted it.

The Ability to Quarantine Is Included in Federal Law & in the ‘Police Powers’ Given to States, Counties & Cities

Quarantines are considered to be “police power” functions, the CDC explains, which means that countries, states or cities do have the authority to take action. The CDC writes: “To control the spread of disease within their borders, states have laws to enforce the use of isolation and quarantine.” These laws vary from state to state, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. The bottom line is that in the majority of states, “breaking a quarantine order is a criminal misdemeanor,” the CDC says.

In terms of federal law, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to “take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states.” This authority is delegated to the CDC, which means the CDC “is authorized to detain, medically examine, and release persons arriving into the United States and traveling between states who are suspected of carrying these communicable diseases.”

Quarantines Are a Measure of Last Resort & Should Only Be Used for Those Infected or Who Have Been Exposed to COVID-19

Quarantines are usually used only as a last resort in an attempt to stop a deadly virus from spreading. Quarantines and self-isolation at home can be voluntary or mandatory; there’s no hard-and-fast rule.

The New York Times said that according to experts, “it often seems voluntary until the person involved tries to leave, at which point health officials are likely to make it compulsory.” Because it varies by state and even county, it can sometimes be hard to know for sure. Many counties and cities don’t have their regulations available online.

In their report, The Times gave the example of a case when an American who was repatriated from Wuhan, China tried to leave the military base in California. In that situation, Riverside County enforced the quarantine. Governments don’t want to be held responsible for individuals leaving a quarantine and infecting others.

According to the CDC rules, the federal government has to test those in quarantine within 72 hours and clearly outline the length of quarantine from the start, which is usually 14 days for COVID-19. However, the punishment for breaking the quarantine can vary, from a fine to a jail sentence, and the right to appeal a quarantine has never made it to the Supreme Court.

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