NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — President Donald Trump said he was considering a quarantine as early as Saturday for coronavirus hotspots in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, though it wasn’t clear whether he had the power to order state residents to stay put.
Trump told reporters 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.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who criticized the federal government’s response as his state became the country’s virus epicenter, said the issue did not come up in a conversation he had with Trump earlier Saturday.
“I don’t even know what that means,” the Democrat 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.”
Trump made his remarks while on a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, to see off a U.S. Navy hospital ship heading to New York City to help with the pandemic. At the event, he spoke to a sparse crowd at the naval base and cautioned Americans to take virus protections, even though he himself, at 73, is in a high-risk category and among those who have been advised to refrain from all non-essential travel.
The federal government is empowered 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.
Courts have ruled consistently for years that the authority to order quarantines inside states rests almost entirely with the states, under provisions in the Constitution ceding power not explicitly delegated to the federal government to states. The federal government, though, would have power under constitutional clauses regulating commerce to quarantine international travelers or those traveling state to state who might be carriers of deadly diseases.
Still, “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.
But as Trump traveled to Norfolk, 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.”
When asked about legal authority for quarantine, the incoming White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said officials are “evaluating all the options right now.”
Administration officials were discussing less-stringent measures as well. One idea under consideration would be to tell residents of the hard-hit areas to isolate themselves and not travel for two weeks, just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has 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 force or penalty, just the hope that people would comply in an effort 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.
DeSantis confirmed he had spoken with the president about the possibility of a quarantine for the New York City area. Speaking Saturday to reporters, DeSantis said Florida will soon set up a checkpoint along Interstate 95 to screen travelers from that area, similar to one already in place along Interstate 10 to screen people from Louisiana. Many airports in Florida also are screening travelers from certain areas, requiring them to self-isolate for 14 days.
“I think whatever works is what we need to do,” DeSantis said.
The U.S. leads the world in reported cases with more than 115,000. There were roughly 1,900 deaths recorded by Saturday.
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.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, also a Democrat, said he’d already called on residents to stay home.
“I look forward to speaking to the President directly about his comments and any further enforcement actions, because confusion leads to panic,” he said in a statement.
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.
After speaking in Norfolk, Trump 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 days after its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, arrived in Los Angeles to perform a 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.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death. The vast majority of people recover.