Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, speaks during a news conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York, U.S., on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday he does not believe President Donald Trump has the authority to impose a quarantine on New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut, after the president floated the idea as a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus out of the hot-spot region.
Cuomo, in an interview with CNN, said that preventing people from moving in and out of the tri-state would amount to a federally imposed lockdown, which he believes is illegal.
“A lockdown is what they did in Wuhan, China,” Cuomo said. “We’re not in China, and we’re not in Wuhan. I don’t believe it would be legal. I believe it would be illegal.”
Cuomo said he does not believe that Trump intends to impose a sweeping quarantine of the region but suggested he could sue if the administration did follow through.
“I’ve sued the federal government a number of times over the years. I do not believe it’s going to come to that on this,” Cuomo said. “This would be a declaration of war on states, a federal declaration of war.”
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House Saturday, said he was considering a two-week quarantine of New York and possibly New Jersey as well as parts of Connecticut. The president said a decision could come Saturday.
“I’m thinking about that right now. We might not have to do it, but there’s a possibility that sometime today we’ll do a quarantine,” Trump told reporters at the White House Saturday. “Short-term, two-week on New York, probably New Jersey and certain parts of Connecticut.”
Trump later backed off those remarks and said he decided a quarantine wasn’t necessary after consulting with the White House task force and the governors of the three states. He has asked the Centers for Disease Control to issue a strong travel advisory, which will be administered by the governors in consultation with the federal government.
Governors in the dark
The governors in the tri-state region, however, said they were in the dark about Trump’s possible quarantine. Cuomo said that while he spoke with the president Saturday morning, a quarantine didn’t come up during their discussions. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters on Saturday that Trump did not bring up a possible quarantine when they spoke on Friday.
“Nothing like quarantine came up,” Murphy said. “I literally saw the story as I was walking into this room. I’ve got no more color on it.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has said the tri-state governors are already implementing certain quarantine measures. Lamont said he wants to speak “to the president directly about his comments and any further enforcement actions, because confusion leads to panic.”
When NBC News asked White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows what legal authority the administration has to order a quarantine, Meadows replied, “We’re evaluating all the options right now.”
Cuomo went on to say that a quarantine imposed by the federal government on the region would cause an economic shock and could provoke a ripple effect across the country, giving states the green light to close their borders.
“New York is the financial sector. You geographically restrict a state, you would paralyze the financial sector,” Cuomo said. “You think the stock market has gone down — it would drop like a stone.”
Talk of a possible quarantine comes as New York and the surrounding states have borne the brunt of the infected cases in the U.S. More than 121,000 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the United States, and at least 2,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have become the center of the outbreak in the U.S. New York has more than 52,000 cases and at least 728 deaths; New Jersey has reported more than 11,000 cases and 140 deaths; and Connecticut has confirmed 1,291 cases and 27 deaths.
Question of enforcement
Federal law gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of infectious diseases from foreign countries and between states, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
This authority is delegated to the CDC, which can detain and medically examine people arriving in the United States and traveling between states that are carrying infectious diseases. These measures, however, focus primarily on individuals. Imposing a quarantine on an entire region is more complicated and the law is not as clear.
Robert Chesney, an expert in constitutional and national security law, said the president’s authority depends on the definition of quarantine. Trump does not have the authority to order everyone in New York to stay in their homes, Chesney said, but he likely does have the authority under the Public Health Service Act of 1944 to impose what’s known as a cordon sanitaire, which would prevent people from moving in and out of a region such as New York.
Chesney, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin Law School, said such an order by the president would almost certainly be challenged in court as Cuomo indicated on CNN, but judges would most likely rule in the administration’s favor. The real question is how such an order would be enforced and whether or not Trump would use the military.
“There is a huge question of how they would enforce that if the state didn’t want to cooperate,” Chesney said. “It’s not like there’s a huge number nonmilitary personnel to draw on.”