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The Feds Could Easily Put Spring Breakers in a Coronavirus Quarantine


“If I get Corona, I get Corona,” now-infamous Spring Breaker Brady Sluder told CBS News.  “I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”

We hope sincerely that the COVID-19 pandemic has not caught up to Brady or his buddies, whose nicknames may or may not read like a page out of the college calendar of a Supreme Court justice.

Every American who likes beer — and even those who don’t — should remember that the federal government is one of limited powers. When it comes to the Coronavirus, local and state governments are primarily responsible for health code enforcement. One exception is when people exercise their Constitutional rights to travel back and forth across state lines. Which is what happens during Spring Break, and it is when federal health jurisdiction kicks in.

If the federal government wanted to enact a quarantine against certain Spring Breakers, it could, assuming they’ve been exposed to the Coronavirus or have actually contracted it. There are 393 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Florida as of the time of this writing; 39 are among nonresidents. The numbers are sure to change. Florida officials have been clear to separtae resident from nonresident cases on the state’s COVID-19 website.

Here is the relevant law on point.

As the CDC notes, federal quarantine and isolation authority arises from the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.  The term “quarantine” generally refers legally to the separation of people who have been exposed to a contagion; “isolation” generally refers legally to the separation of people actually infected.

Part of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. § 264) authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General to adopt regulations “necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States or possessions, or from one State or possession into any other State or possession.”  Pursaunt to that statute, the Code of Federal Regulations (42 C.F.R. §§ 7071) authorizes the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to “detain, medically examine, and eventually release persons arriving into the United States and traveling between states who are suspected of carrying communicable diseases . . . [i]f a quarantinable disease is suspected or identified, the CDC may issue a federal isolation or quarantine order.”  Enforcement comes from Customs and Border Protection and Coast Guard officers.  Fines and imprisonment are authorized against persons and organziations who violate federal quarantine orders, and the penalties escalate depending on the severity of harm:

(a) Persons in violation of this part are subject to a fine of no more than $100,000 if the violation does not result in a death or one year in jail, or both, or a fine of no more than $250,000 if the violation results in a death or one year in jail, or both, or as otherwise provided by law.

(b) Violations by organizations are subject to a fine of no more than $200,000 per event if the violation does not result in a death or $500,000 per event if the violation results in a death or as otherwise provided by law.

What is the likelihood Spring Breakers would actually be quarantined?  As one law review notes, federal quarantines are “rarely . . . invoked,” and illustrates with this example:

[T]here is only one published district court case, United States ex. rel Siegel v. Shinnick, that directly relates to the federal government’s placement of an individual into quarantine.

[ . . . ]

Ellen Siegel, an arriving passenger who[] . . . had been in Stockholm, Sweden, a city that the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared to be a smallpox-infected local area . . . could not show proof of vaccination against smallpox. The court upheld the quarantine . . . [t]he court further noted that there was no way of knowing for fourteen days whether Siegel was actually infected with smallpox, and that she was especially susceptible to infection because she had a past history of being unsuccessfully vaccinated.

There are checks on the government’s power to quarantine. As the law review explains, “[t]he Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause bars certain arbitrary, wrongful government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them” (internal quotations ommitted).  The issues and the limits are explained here:

For purposes of interstate isolation and quarantine, it must be reasonably believed that the an individual is in the communicable stage of the disease or, if the individual is in a precommunicable stage, that the disease be likely to cause a public health emergency if transmitted to others. Furthermore, the periods of incubation and communicability for these quarantinable communicable diseases are not arbitrarily set, but rather are well-known and established in scientific literature. Thus, federal quarantine and isolation do not raise the substantive due process concern that individuals will be confined based solely on mere speculation that they may pose a danger to the public in the distant future.

[Featured image via screen capture from CBS News/YouTube.]

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Aaron Keller holds a juris doctor degree from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a broadcast journalism degree from Syracuse University. He is a former anchor and executive producer for the Law&Crime Network and is now deputy editor-in-chief for the Law&Crime website. DISCLAIMER:  This website is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely on it for legal advice. Reading this site or interacting with the author via this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Speak to a competent lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal advice and representation relevant to your situation.