What If a Quarantine Happens in Your City?

During the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic, officials in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania established martial law.

Residents were not allowed to travel to other cities. For fear of spreading or contracting the disease. A few years later, Congress passed a federal quarantine law to make such edicts legal.

Quarantines and isolations in the United States have been very rare since then. Part of the reason has been the advancement of medicine.

But they do occur. In 2007, federal officials isolated a man believed to be carrying a dangerous strain of tuberculosis.

Seven years later, travelers from West Africa to the U.S. were quarantined by some states. That was due to the Ebola virus. 

Quarantines may be coming

With the spread of the coronavirus, quarantines are in the news again. They’ve occurred in China, where the coronavirus started. And in other countries.

That includes America, which recently quarantined travelers from China. It marked the first federal mandatory quarantine of travelers to the U.S. in 50 years. The last one occurred in the Sixties.

We could be heading toward more quarantines as the coronavirus spreads here. What would a quarantine look like in your area of the country?

It depends on a variety of factors. Including the extent of the spread. As well as state or local laws.

Public health vs. citizens’ rights

Before we go on, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding two terms. They often get mixed up. “Quarantine” refers to separating seemingly healthy people exposed to a virus from the public.

“Isolation” is for people who are already sick. It’s a commonly accepted measure for halting communicable diseases.

Officials should balance public health with the rights of travelers and citizens when deciding on a quarantine.

Some travelers might have no idea they’re carrying the coronavirus. Others may know they have it, but come to the U.S. to seek treatment here.

Travelers can appeal

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has the authority to issue a mandatory quarantine. At least for international travelers.

But travelers could challenge that authority on constitutional grounds.

In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed for quarantined travelers to appeal in court.

The CDC can seek the help of local and state officials. To make sure travelers exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus are confined.

‘Slow the entry of this virus’

The current U.S. quarantine of travelers has an obvious goal. Dr. Nancy Messonnier is the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

She says, “The goal here is to slow the entry of this virus into the United States.”

Americans who have been in China’s Hubei province within the past 14 days are quarantined. As well as those who have traveled to other parts of mainland China and are showing symptoms.

Also being quarantined are Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China by the State Department. Messonnier said it is impossible to catch every traveler with the coronavirus. But she believes they can stop the majority.

Legal precedent

Now, what about average U.S. citizens who have not traveled internationally? Can they be legally quarantined?

Yes. Government officials have extensive authority to implement public health measures. Assuming they are trying to stop an epidemic or pandemic.

Most cases are many decades old, but there is legal precedent for quarantining individuals.

Among the legal cases are Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824 and Jacobson v. Massachusetts in 1905.

Power to quarantine ‘is beyond question’

Here’s what the U.S. Supreme Court has declared. “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.”

The government may decide a quarantine is medically justified. If so, individual rights take a back seat to the greater good.

Government officials can force people to submit to medical exams. And can insist on vaccinations. They can also prevent travel and commandeer private property.

Quarantine may be the most extreme use of government power over people who have committed no crime.

Local authorities will decide

The federal government establishes quarantine guidelines. But it’s up to local and state health departments to carry them out.

Some states may decide to ignore federal recommendations. Other states could enforce even stronger ones.

They have the authority to lock down an entire neighborhood. As long as they feel it’s necessary to prevent the spread of a disease like the coronavirus.

They could also remove sick individuals from homes and isolate them in facilities. Again, if they feel that would help stop the coronavirus spread. 

Self-quarantine is preferable

The consequences for disobeying a quarantine order are severe. Quarantine violators are subject to a fine of up to $100,000, a year in jail, or both.

And that’s if the violation does not result in someone’s death. What if someone died due to a quarantine violation? Then the fine rises to up to $250,000, a year in jail, or both.

James Hodge is the director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University.

He says the better solution is to allow people to self-quarantine at home. Because “the implementation of federal, heavy-handed quarantine can be problematic and can backfire.”

Are quarantines effective?

Having said all this, the odds that many Americans will be quarantined because of the coronavirus seem low. That’s based on what health officials say.

Dr. James Kazura is the director of Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Global Health and Diseases.

“There’s just no good evidence, at least in modern times, that (a mass quarantine) has made a big difference,” he said.

He believes it’s very unlikely a U.S. city or state will try anything similar to the mass quarantine in China. “I think it would be very hard to do something like that in this country,” he said.

Kazura added that quarantines might actually put more people at risk. That would be due to keeping them in close quarters.

The key is to be ready

Hopefully we will never experience a quarantine. Because of the coronavirus or any other epidemic or pandemic.

But there may come a time when we need to temporarily stay away from public places. It might be the safest way to stay healthy.

And the best way to do that is to prepare.


  • rich - March 26, 2020

    on 2/20/20 myself and a my crew of 5 were forced to leave the jobsite. We were told leave in 1 or go to jail. Even though non essential union company are allowed to work. I have a friend that sets tile for a union company. he is still working. How are video game stores still open and considered essential. What happened to equal protection under the law? When I asked on what authority we would be arrested under they told us that it was by issue of the governor.
    Under U.S. code ss 264 (a) "The surgeon general, with the approval of the Secretary of human services is authorized to make and enforce such regulations.
    This quarantines have not been mandated by the C.D.C the surgeon general. The governor does not have the authority to mandate any type of quarantine that I can find.
    I would also like to point out that quarantines are for infected people. These are isolations. Those definitions are defined in US 42. This is just house arrest. Most of the guys I work with live paycheck to paycheck. Taking a forced vacation will financially destroy them for some time. Our government has been totally out of control for some time. I wish more people would stop listing to the lies on the news and facebook. Me and everyone I work with will be filing 83 suit against ill. On top of suing public official bonds. You can sue any public officials bond. Police, judges even the governors. It filed as a constitutional person injury. If a public official looses their bond they loose their job. Their bond is a insurance policy incase they violate someone rights. And they do on a hourly basis!!! This country is so messed up because most of the general population are to lazy to do any type of meaningful research. Suing their bonds straightens them up fast .

  • Lorraine Magarian - March 04, 2020

    Glad you related the difference between isolation and quarantine. Isolation is far more Constitutional and effective. Governments today are playing nasty games with their citizens.

  • Fiona - March 03, 2020

    Forced medical examinations, forced vaccinations, commandeering of private property. Tyranny at it’s finest. Those who want security over liberty deserve neither.
    Commandeering of private property is still theft, no matter how it is worded. Thou shalt not steal. Period.
    Forced medical exams and forced vaccinations are violations of the sanctity of my body and the government has no authority over MY BODY, or that of my family.

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