We’ve crossed a line when security guards are protecting toilet paper. That’s the situation at my local Costco. Security guards standing watch at the toilet paper in case there’s a riot over the “2 per customer” limit placed on it. At 30 rolls per case, that’s a 60-roll limit on toilet paper. 60 rolls. Enough to last my family of 6 at least 3 months. The COVID-19 coronavirus has created mass hysteria. Stock market tanked, travel plans cancelled, cruise ships turned into floating petri dishes. And people stockpiling supplies to outlast a nuclear winter much less the projected 2 to 3-week self-quarantine recommended by the CDC if you are exposed to the virus or are symptomatic. Texans are notoriously leery of the government, especially the federal government. If it takes security guards to keep Texans in line when it comes to toilet paper, can the government enforce isolation and quarantine? Sort of, but it’s complicated and very hard to enforce in a meaningful way.

The feds vs the states: who’s in charge?

The feds

Let’s start with the federal government, which has delegated its authority to isolate or quarantine to the CDC. The CDC can detain, medically examine, and release people suspected of being exposed to, or sick with, the coronavirus under only 2 circumstances:
  • people arriving into the U.S. (sea ports, airports, and border crossings), and
  • people traveling between states (highway checkpoints, airports, bus terminals, and train stations).
Refusal to comply is punishable by fines and imprisonment. So I don’t get slammed by other lawyers reading this article, I’ll point out the caveat. The feds, in their effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus between states, could issue a federal quarantine. But this is rarely used and has only been used once on a large scale (Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918). The takeaway? If you want to avoid being detained by the feds, avoid travel outside of your home state.

The states

Let’s say an infected patient or someone who has been exposed to the coronavirus refuses to self-isolate or quarantine. Maybe he’s an hourly worker who can’t afford not to work. Or maybe he’s a jackass who just can’t stay out of Wal-Mart. Who has the authority to make him stay home? The states, and this is where the answer gets complicated. State, local, and tribal authorities have the authority to enforce isolation and quarantine within their own borders. But, since it’s basically imprisonment, it involves a legal process. Legal processes involve courts, judges, and hearings. And lawyers. Lots of lawyers. In Texas, on-call district judges are being appointed to hold hearings. And lawyers are being asked to represent people who don’t already have an attorney in those hearings (at the government’s expense). Failure to abide by a quarantine order is a misdemeanor. So far no hearings have been held because every Texan asked to self-quarantine has complied. The takeaway? Yes, your state and local authorities can force someone to stay home, but only after 2 separate court hearings and the person being represented by a lawyer. And even then, failure to abide by the order is only a misdemeanor.

If you are infected with, or exposed to, the coronavirus, should you refuse to self-isolate or quarantine?

It’s hard for the government to force you to self-isolate or quarantine, and the penalties are not that bad. And it’s not like they are going to shoot you if you leave your house for a quick Starbucks run. Should you just say screw it, I’m not going to be stuck in my house for 2 to 3 weeks? Heck no.

Don’t be a jackass

While for most people the virus is no worse than a bad cold, it’s going to be fatal for some people. The elderly, those with compromised immune symptoms. Even a few otherwise healthy people are dying. Also, our health system cannot handle everyone getting sick at the same time. We need to do what we can to slow the progression of the virus. Bottom line? Is your need for a latte or refusal to watch one more hour of Netflix worth killing someone’s grandma? No, it’s not. For more on what you need to do to get your household prepared for self-isolation or quarantine, check out this handout from the CDC. Good news. You don’t need more than 60 rolls of toilet paper. What are your thoughts on the coronavirus? Hype or something you are really worried about? Leave a comment or send me an email. Please read the Disclaimer.     Tags: