Radical Intersection: Where The Constitution Meets The Coronavirus
The First Amendment defines multiple rights that are being suspended due to a type of martial law being imposed around America: churches and large gatherings are being shut down, travel is being restricted and if you dare to write about the "Wuhan Virus" on any social media platform, you are attacked and branded as a xenophobic racist. When and how will full First Amendment rights be restored? - CFFS Editor
By Haley Fowler, The Sacramento Bee
Public closures, a ban on gatherings, quarantine notices and orders for isolation have become increasingly common as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States.
Officials in Washington state and San Francisco are limiting the number of people allowed to attend public gatherings. The governor of California joined them on Thursday in urging the cancellation of all events with more than 250 people in attendance.
The governor of Kentucky, a Bible belt state, has asked churches and other religious institutions to temporarily cancel services.
But if it seems these actions are infringing on individual freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, think again.
Hodge is the director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, an affiliate of the Network for Public Health Law. As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs, he said, the types of “aggressive measures” taking place in some parts of the country will be used elsewhere.
Hodge said those declarations help shape how public health officials can respond at the state and local level, enabling them to act fast while instituting forms of social distancing — “which is one of the only tools we have available to us” during a public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
Officials typically have to go through legal processes to close an establishment or shut down public gatherings, Hodge said. But under a state of emergency, everything is expedited.
“It’s not that we don’t have time for First Amendment interests, it’s that we must act fast,” he said. “What was opened today can be closed tomorrow.”
Getting the Courts Involved
That doesn’t mean communities in the U.S. will see the kind of large-scale lock-downs happening in Italy and China, Hodge added.
But there are circumstances under which a voluntary recommendation can become involuntary.
A man in Missouri left quarantine to attend a father-daughter dance at a nearby hotel, McClatchy reported, prompting county health officials to warn “he must remain in his home or they will issue a formal quarantine that will require him and the rest of his family to stay in their home by the force of law.”
When someone opts to evade such recommendations, Hodge said, public health authorities can seek a court order mandating their compliance.
“Some of those basic liberties are going to be truncated for a brief period,” he said. “Most Americans understand the need for that.”
But these types of public closures and requests for self-quarantine aren’t without good reason — it’s “flattening the curve,” Vox reported.
If officials don’t stop the rapid spread of coronavirus, or at least slow it down, epidemiologists have said the health care system could be “overwhelmed by a sudden explosion of illness that requires more people to be hospitalized than it can handle,” according to Vox.