President Donald Trump said he was considering a quarantine as early as Saturday for coronavirus hotspots in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to stop the spread from reaching states with fewer infections. It was unclear whether he has the power to order residents of a state to stay put.
Trump told reporters at the White House that he had spoken with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, among others, and that “a lot of the states that are infected but don’t have a big problem, they’ve asked me if I’ll look at it so we’re going to look at it.”
But Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., who criticized the federal government’s response as his state became the country’s virus epicenter, said the issue had not come up in a conversation he had with Trump earlier Saturday.
“I don’t even know what that means,” he said at a briefing in New York. “I don’t know how that could be legally enforceable, and from a medical point of view, I don’t know what you would be accomplishing. … I don’t like the sound of it.”
The federal government is empowered under the law to take measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases between states, but it’s not clear that means Trump can ban people from leaving their state. It has never been tested in the modern era — and in rare cases when any quarantine was challenged, the courts generally sided with public health officials.
“It is entirely unprecedented that governors or the president would prevent people from traveling from one state to another during an infectious disease outbreak,” said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor and public health specialist who questioned Trump’s ability to order a quarantine on states. “I can’t think of a time that’s happened since the great influenza pandemic of 1918.”
But as Trump traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, to see off a U.S. Navy medical ship setting sail for New York City to help with the pandemic response, he tweeted: “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE of developing “hot spots” New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A decision will be made, one way or another, shortly.”
He may not need to order a legally justifiable quarantine. One idea under consideration would be to tell residents of those areas to isolate themselves and not travel for two weeks, just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have instructed anyone who recently left New York to self-quarantine for 14 days, according to one person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing deliberations.
The measure wouldn’t necessarily come with any legal justification or penalty, just the hope that people would comply to try to contain the virus spread.
The governors of Florida, Maryland, South Carolina and Texas already have ordered people arriving from the New York area to self-quarantine for at least 14 days upon arrival. In a more dramatic step, Rhode Island police have begun pulling over drivers with New York plates so that the National Guard can collect contact information and inform them of a mandatory, 14-day quarantine.
Trump said the idea of isolating many in the trio of Democratic strongholds in the Northeast was pushed by DeSantis, one of the president’s most outspoken supporters. It came a day after Trump made clear he wanted governors to be grateful when asking for federal support for the pandemic.
Trump said people “go to Florida and a lot of people don’t want that. So we’ll see what happens.” He later clarified it would not affect truckers or people transiting through, and would not affect trade.
“We’ll be announcing that one way or the other fairly soon,” he said.
Florida is a perennial swing state, and one Trump must win come November — plus he recently moved his residence from New York to Florida. It also has a population of 21 million with a large percentage of old people, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he did not talk about quarantining the tri-state area in his recent conversation with Trump, and learned of the president’s comments as he walked into Saturday’s daily briefing.
“Until further notified we’re going to keep doing exactly what we’re doing, because we believe the data and the facts are on our side in terms of this aggressive, as aggressive as any American state right now, in terms of social distancing and flattening the curve,” he said.
The quarantine idea comes a day after the president took a round of steps to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic, even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him.
“I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said Friday after the White House announced he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators.
Yet Trump — who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown — rejected any criticism of the federal government’s response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now.
Trump said he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan — two coronavirus hotspots — because of their public criticism. “If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” Trump said.
In Norfolk, Trump saw off the ship with a speech before only a few people and then watched as the USS Comfort slowly made its way out of port. The 1,000-bed hospital ship had been undergoing planned maintenance, but was rushed back into service to aid the city.
It is scheduled to arrive Monday at a Manhattan pier a week after its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, arrived in Los Angeles to preform similar duty on the West Coast.
“We will stop at nothing to protect the health of New Yorkers and the health of the people of our country in their hour of need,” Trump said.
The ship has 12 operating rooms as well as radiology suites and a CT scanner. It also has ICU beds, a lab and a pharmacy. The 1,100 or so medical staff on board are mostly active duty service members from the U.S. Navy, and some reservists, who serve on the East Coast.
The president acknowledged that making the 140-mile trip to Naval Station Norfolk wasn’t necessary, but said he did it to recognize the work of sailors and medical professionals who worked to get the ship out of maintenance more than a week ahead of schedule.
Trump, 73, is in a high-risk category because of his age, and federal guidance for weeks has advised those in that pool to refrain from non-essential travel of all sorts.