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Health Law Monitor

Coronavirus: The Role of the States and the Federal Government in a Public Health Crisis

March 19, 2020

By: Blair Wessels

On Friday, March 13, 2020, President Trump declared the Covid-19 (also known as the Coronavirus) pandemic a national emergency. By doing so, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) can now access billions of dollars in federal resources to help state and local agencies combat and contain the spread of Coronavirus.1 When matters of public health are at stake, the federal government’s authority to act derives from the Public Health Services Act.  Under the Act, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to prevent the spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States as well as in between states.2 These powers have been largely delegated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”).

Although significant attention has been focused on the federal government’s response to the pandemic, states and local governments are primarily responsible for maintaining public health and controlling the spread of disease within state borders.3 Every state, the District of Columbia, and most territories have public health laws authorizing state and local officials to enact quarantines and isolation.4

Several states and cities have already taken measures to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. For example, West Virginia is just one of several states, including Maryland, Ohio, and Kentucky, to close schools.5 Illinois and Ohio have gone a step further, closing all bars and restaurants to dine-in customers.6 New York has already created a “containment area” around the community of New Rochelle, hoping to limit the spread of the disease in an area that quickly became a large source of Coronavirus infections.7 To better enforce the “containment,” Governor Andrew Cuomo deployed the National Guard to help distribute medical services, food, and other necessities as well as help clean public spaces.8

If the Coronavirus continues to spread and more cases are confirmed, states and the federal government likely will take more dramatic steps to contain the spread of the disease. The federal government has already issued federal isolation and quarantine orders to individuals returning from areas abroad like Wuhan, China, and has limited travel coming into the United States. Although the federal government will continue working closely with state and local authorities to contain the spread of the disease, the federal government likely cannot issue a nationwide quarantine.9 Large-scale, mandatory quarantines will fall to states and localities.

For now, expect the federal government to continue issuing advisory guidelines and recommendations to slow the spread of the disease. Expect more states to follow New York’s example and institute quarantines, curfews, and/or cancel events and other activities. Eighteen states have already activated their National Guard in anticipation of more extreme measures.

Additional information about each state’s authority to quarantine and isolate can be found at the National Conference of State Legislatures' website. Updates on state declarations of emergency can be found at the National Governors Association's website.

1  Brett Samuels & Morgan Chalfant, Trump declares national emergency over Coronavirus, THE HILL (Mar. 13, 2020, 3:32 P.M.), https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/487473-trump-declares-national-emergency-over-coronavirus

2  See 42 U.S. Code § 264; see also Legal Authority for Isolation and Quarantine, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION, https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/aboutlawsregulationsquarantineisolation.html (last visited March 14, 2020). 

3  State Quarantine and Isolation Statutes, NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES (Feb. 27, 2020), https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-quarantine-and-isolation-statutes.aspx

4  Id. 

5  Merrit Kennedy & Cory Turner, States Begin Widespread School Closures to Fight Coronavirus, NPR (Mar. 12, 2020, 6:46 P.M.), https://www.npr.org/2020/03/12/815177591/maryland-and-ohio-to-close-schools-statewide-due-to-coronavirus

6  Brandon Conradis, Illinois, Ohio closing all bars, restaurants in response to Coronavirus, THE HILL (Mar. 15, 2020, 3:51 P.M.), https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/487684-illinois-ohio-closing-all-bars-restaurants-in-response-to-coronavirus

7  Bill Chappell, Coronavirus: New York Creates ‘Containment Area’ Around Cluster in New Rochelle, NPR (Mar. 10, 2020, 2:17 P.M.), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/10/814099444/new-york-creates-containment-area-around-cluster-in-new-rochelle.

8  Neil MacFarquhar, Can You Be Forced Into Quarantine? Your Questions, Answered, N.Y. TIMES (Mar. 12, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/us/coronavirus-quarantine-questions.html

9  MacFarquhar, supra note 8.


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