Coronavirus Quarantines and the Law: 5 Things You Need to Know

The Federal Docket

March 10, 2020

With the continued spread of the coronavirus (also known as COVID-19), quarantines are being considered as a potential way to control the spread of the virus. Quarantines can be effective, but they also create potential legal issues.

Quarantines are already being rolled out in response to the coronavirus. Recently, hundreds of Americans were evacuated out of China and quarantined at two military bases in California under “mandatory quarantine orders.” Thousands of passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship were also held against their will as part of a mandatory quarantine.

There are also over eighty people in New York who are currently in voluntary quarantine or “self-quarantine,” though local officials have warned they will take the “next steps” if any of these individuals choose not to stay in quarantine.

In the event quarantines become more common, this is a good time to review the law governing quarantines in the United States. Here are five common questions to know about quarantines and the law:

1. What is a “quarantine”?

A quarantine is simply a restriction that separates and restricts the movement of an individual reasonably believed to have been exposed to a particular contagious disease. A person does not have to be “sick” to be quarantined. In fact, a quarantine generally does not apply to individuals who are actually ill and suffering from a contagious disease. A quarantine is designed to apply to people who are not yet sick but may become sick based upon their exposure to a particular contagious disease.

On the other hand, “isolation” refers to restrictions on people who have been infected with a contagious disease to prevent them from spreading the disease to others. While a quarantine is very different from isolation, the two are generally treated exactly the same under the law. The federal government treats these restrictions interchangeably under the law.

Of course, a quarantine can be very restrictive or not restrictive at all. A person can be confined to a particular hospital room for an indefinite amount of time, or a person may be released to their home with only limited travel restrictions. The extent of the restriction will depend entirely on the public health official who has ordered the quarantine. There are really no rules or guidelines to determine how restrictive a quarantine should be and how long one may last.

2. Who can order a quarantine?

Both federal and state governments have the legal authority to order a quarantine. Federal authority is primarily limited to individuals who are coming in to the United States from other countries, and individuals who are traveling from state to state. The federal government has jurisdiction in this area based on the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution. Under federal law, the CDC now has the jurisdiction to issue a federal isolation or quarantine order. The President determines which diseases may be the basis for an isolation or quarantine order.

State and local governments also have the ability to impose quarantine and isolation restrictions. State laws vary significantly in how a quarantine order is implemented and enforced. In some states, the governor or other executive officer makes the determination that a quarantine is appropriate. In other states, that decision is left to public health officials. Local officials, including county health boards, also have the jurisdiction in most states to order a quarantine. As with federal law, there are very few guidelines on how these quarantines should be implemented and how long they should last.

Obviously, there is a great potential for disagreement between federal and state authorities over whether a quarantine should be issued and how restrictive it should be. Federal law will control if the restriction is limited to individuals coming into the country or if the restriction deals only with individuals traveling from state to state. Within a state, however, state law will control unless the federal government can show that it unnecessarily infringes upon interstate commerce. Because there have been so few challenges to quarantine orders, this is a gray area of the law and ripe for conflict.

Generally, the CDC has stated that it defers to state and local health authorities to determine whether a quarantine is appropriate or not. In the past, the CDC has stated that federal authority to quarantine an exposed person would be used only rarely. Given the potential for a true epidemic, it is certainly possible that the CDC will attempt to assert its authority over any state whose quarantine orders may be different from a federal order.

3. When can a quarantine be ordered?

The law governing quarantines are very vague about when it is legal to order a person quarantined or isolated. Federal law simply provides the authority to order a quarantine to “prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the state…or from one state…into any other…” Generally, state laws are just as vague. Most state laws refer to “public health emergencies” or any situation where a public health official determines that there is a risk of an individual spreading a contagious disease.

The vagueness of these laws is not the only concern. Under both federal and state law, the decision to order a quarantine is generally left to the discretion of one particular official. For federal quarantines, that official is the director of the CDC. In most states, the official is the head of the state public health office or the governor.

There are no guidelines to determine how sick a person must be to be isolated, or how dangerous a disease must be for a quarantine to be warranted. Obviously, health officials will disagree on when and how to impose a quarantine so I would expect a wide variety of quarantine efforts to be implemented from state to state.

The type of restrictions contained in any particular quarantine order can also vary. Federal and state laws generally require only that individuals may be detained for such time and in such manner as may be reasonably necessary. Obviously, what is “reasonably necessary” can differ depending upon who makes that decision.

4. What happens if someone violates a quarantine order?

Federal law provides criminal sanctions for any individual who violates a federal quarantine or isolation order. Violating such an order is a misdemeanor and carries a potential sentence of up to a year in jail.

The penalties for violating a state or local quarantine order vary depending upon the state. In some states, violating a quarantine is a misdemeanor offense. In other states, the violation may only subject the person to a civil fine.

5. Can someone challenge a quarantine order?

Under federal law, there is no specific mechanism in place to challenge a quarantine order. An individual who is subject to a federal quarantine restriction would have to challenge that restrictions by filing a petition in court. Among other things, the individual would likely argue that the restriction is unconstitutional and that it deprives the individual of his or her due process rights.

There have been very few cases where an individual was able to successfully challenge a quarantine order. In almost every case, courts have upheld quarantine orders as being reasonably necessary to protect public health. As long as the quarantine order provides some ability for an individual to challenge it in court, then a quarantine order is likely to withstand scrutiny.


Page Pate - Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Read Page's reviews on AVVO. Follow Page on Twitter @pagepate and on Linkedin.

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