Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered | Thursday Morning Coffee

March 19, 2020 7:15 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

Pennsylvania is now up to 133 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the state, sadly, has seen its first fatality, a resident of Northampton County. On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8th District, announced he’d gone into self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone suffering from the illness. And the rest of us are working from home or are in our own form of self-isolation.

Which got us thinking: So what is quarantine, anyway? And what are your legal rights when the government tells you to Netflix and couch it? We’re turning things over to University of Oregon Legal Research Professor Latisha Nixon-Jones, who has some answers. She wrote the piece below for The Conversationwhere it first appeared.

1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?

The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders.

This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate.

However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.

That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.

In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.

Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

Quarantined individuals do have the right to challenge the quarantine order.

You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures’ website.

2. Who can enforce quarantines?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

NUTLEY, NJ – FEBRUARY 28: A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on February 28, 2020 in Nutley, New Jersey. The facility develops novel therapies for some of the worlds most difficult diseases. At least 53 countries have reported cases of infection. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?

At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.

You must contact your doctor to get approval to be tested. If you don’t have a doctor, contact your public health authority. Currently not everyone can be tested due to the shortage of tests.

The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.

But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.

Taking a sample is quick, easy and can be done anywhere. Finding out if a person is infected is more complicated. (Rodolfo Parulan Jr./Moment via Getty Images)

4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?

According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”

state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.

The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens. So far, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has made restrictions voluntary – and is not sending out law enforcement or the National Guard to enforce it.

There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.

The power to declare a federal state of emergency is given to the president under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergencyaccording to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
From Staff Reporters Stephen Caruso and Elizabeth Hardison, here are the details on Pennsylvania’s first COVID-19 fatality. Sadly, it likely won’t be the last.

Associate Editor Cassie Miller has the latest numbers, as of midday Wednesday. And Hardison augments the coverage with a trio of data visualizations explaining the breadth and scope of the outbreak.

Caruso interviewed food service workers who have been affected by the Wolf administration’s shutdown order. Thousands are out of work. And it’s putting a strain on Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system.

Hardison has an update on Wednesday’s very brief state Senate vote on an internal rules change allowing lawmakers to cast ballots remotely.

COVID-19 has hit Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation: U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-8th Districtis self-isolating after coming into contact with someone who tested positive. He says he’s not suffering any symptoms.

If you’re an older adult in Pennsylvania, or have family who is, you’ll want to read this advice from a physician and veteran of the long-term care industry.

Pa. U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D) both voted yes Wednesday when Congress cleared a 2nd major coronavirus package; A 3rd is in the works. Capital-Star Washington Reporter Allison Stevens has the story.

Now that Erie has its first COVID-19 case, Capital-Star Correspondent Hannah Miller runs down how the City by the Lake prepared for, and is handling, the outbreak.

From our partners at the Pittsburgh Current and the Philadelphia Tribune, here are bookended looks at the latest from each of Pennsylvania’s largest cities.

On our Commentary Page, two activists from Pittsburgh United are calling on Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature to pass a COVID-19 relief package that benefits all Pennsylvanians — not some of them. And that pursuit of happiness thing? In the time of coronavirus (and at all times), it’s linked to the collective good, a Penn State political philosopher … err … philosophizes.

The floor of the Pa. House of Representatives during a joint session on 4/10/19 , commemorating the deaths at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue (screen capture)

The Inquirer runs down the legislative proposals in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Morning Call profiles Pennsylvania’s first death, a 55-year-old man from Northampton County.
The Post-Gazette looks at how the funeral industry is preparing for COVID-19 related fatalities.
PennLive profiles Health Secretary Rachel Levine, who’s become the public face of the outbreak.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

WHYY-FM hits on the unexpected upside of the quarantine — cleaner air. 
There’s a struggle in Philadelphia to render coronavirus-related information into Spanish, WHYY-FM also reports.
U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, is among the top 20 most vulnerable congressional incumbents, PoliticsPA reports.
Two members of Congress have now tested positive for the virus, Roll Call reports.

What Goes On.
As ever, there’s the daily COVID-19 outbreak, usually at 2 p.m. Now most definitely virtual.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Kat Breitmayer, in the Pa. House Democratic Caucus, who completes another voyage around the sun. Congratulations.

Heavy Rotation.
Some musical comfort food today: Here’s Sir Rod Stewart, and his version of The Faces’ “Ooh La La.”

Thursday’s Gratuitous History Fact.
Today, in 1916, the United States launched its first air combat mission. But if you were thinking it was over the trenches of France, think again. From“Eight Curtiss ‘Jenny’ planes of the First Aero Squadron take off from Columbus, New Mexico, in the first combat air mission in U.S. history. The First Aero Squadron, organized in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I, was on a support mission for the 7,000 U.S. troops who invaded Mexico to capture Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.”

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.