Officials in the hardest-hit states in the U.S., like New York, are prepared to impose legal penalties on individuals who flout restrictions implemented to stem the spread of the widening novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
U.S. coronavirus hotspots like New York, New Jersey, Washington State, and California, respectively, are cracking down on public gatherings and shutting down all non-essential businesses, organizations, establishments, and other facilities.
Some U.S. states and localities are quickly discovering that well-intentioned, but toothless requests to maintain adequate social distancing might not persuade freedom-loving U.S. residents to comply with never-before-imagined restrictions.
In the United States, legal consequences for those who ignore coronavirus rules currently range from nothing to fines and jail time. The federal government has left enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in the hands of states and localities.
Some law enforcement agencies in the country have already begun to deal with rule-breakers.
In New York, the hardest-hit state (20,875 cases; 157 deaths), Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced a statewide “stay at home” order and banned all non-essential employees from coming to work.
“These are not helpful hints … these are legal provisions, they will be enforced,” Cuomo declared, noting that New York will impose civil fines on businesses who fail to comply.
Moreover, individuals who break mandatory quarantines in New York can face between $200 and $2,000 per day in fines in NYC alone and up to $2,000 per incident elsewhere, the New York Post reported early this month.
“Violations that pose an immediate danger to the public can also result in arrest and prosecution on a misdemeanor charge,” the newspaper noted.
NYC Department of Health employees have the “legal authority make arrests, use physical force and conduct searches — although they can’t carry guns unless they’re licensed,” the Post added.
In New Jersey (2,844 cases; 27 deaths), now home to the second-highest number of cases, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a “stay at home” order over the weekend.
Gov. Murphy has also required the shut down of non-essential businesses and banned public gatherings.
“Murphy said law enforcement across New Jersey is prepared to charge people who willfully disregard the rules,” WHYY-TV, a component of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), reported Saturday.
Meanwhile, in Washington State (1,996 cases; 95 deaths), Gov. Inslee has not been specific about consequences for breaking the legally imposed ban on large gatherings, saying he expects widespread compliance.
“The penalties are you might be killing your grandfather if you don’t do it,” he said in early March.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States Constitution’s Commerce Clause grants the federal government the authority to impose isolation of cases and quarantines.
State and local state health officials also have the power to enforce quarantine and isolation, the CDC said.
“These laws can vary from state to state and can be specific or broad. In some states, local health authorities implement state law. In most states, breaking a quarantine order is a criminal misdemeanor,” the CDC noted.
In 2018, the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice revealed that half of the states have “police powers” to enforce public health restrictions.
Gov. Inslee has ordered all bars, entertainment, and recreational facilities across Washington to shut down and has limited restaurant service to take-out or delivery only.
In California (1,887 cases; 35 deaths), Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued an order instructing all residents of the state to “stay at home” in a bid to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
While law enforcement agencies say they want compliance, not arrests, the new measure comes with a misdemeanor penalty for anyone who violates it.
Nevertheless, Newsom, echoing the governor of nearby Washington State, said, “I don’t believe the people of California need to be told through law enforcement,” adding that social pressure will push people to stay at home, the Orange County Register reported.
“This is not martial law. Nor is it intended to arrest people who leave their home,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva reportedly added in a video, referring to the “stay at home” order that Los Angles County put in place shortly before the statewide one.
“It is simply an effort to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. This is temporary,” the sheriff added. “There is no need to panic.”
Meanwhile, California’s Bay Area has imposed some of the tightest coronavirus restrictions in the nation to keep the disease from surging and overwhelming the health care system.
Officials from San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, Contra Costa, and Alameda Counties — ordered residents to abide by “shelter in place” measures that went into effect March 17.
For people who have a home in the Bay Area, failure to comply with the “shelter in place” order could result in a “misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment or both,” the New York Times reported.
However, San Francisco’s police chief, Bill Scott, noted that officers would be taking a “compassionate, common-sense approach” to enforcement, SFGate pointed out.
More than 100 million people are in lockdown in the United States as quarantine-like measures expand across the country.
It remains unclear whether officials implemented the restrictions in the United States early enough to be sufficient to stem the spread of the deadly and highly contagious virus.