One day after Bill Roberts’s oldest daughter Christina drove to their hospital in Westchester County to be tested for the coronavirus, two nurses from the county Health Department showed up in hazmat suits at their front door and requested to test the seven other people in the house.
Before leaving, the nurses distributed a four-page, Xeroxed mandatory quarantine order, barring all of them from leaving their home in North Salem for two weeks.
The pages included a long list of rules. More than 1,700 people are living under such mandatory quarantine across the state, said Gary Holmes, the spokesman for the New York Department of Health.
Don’t go anywhere, especially not shopping centers, drugstores, grocery stores, theaters or religious services.
Don’t share beds or spend a lot of time in common areas of the house.
Call if you need food. Your trash will be handled separately.
Expect random visits from the Health Department to ensure you are complying.
“It has been strange — we had no idea that it was going to happen,” said Mr. Roberts, who designs and installs kitchens for a living. He tried and failed to get consistent answers to his many questions.
The coronavirus is forcing Americans into unexplored territory, in this case understanding and accepting the loss of freedom associated with a quarantine. Even if many people grasp the need for precautions, managing the upheaval caused by such extreme measures is an experience few have faced.
Quarantines were far more common more than 100 years ago for epidemics like cholera and other childhood illnesses. That said, a small group of people forced to stay home during the Ebola virus scare six years ago offers an example of both the thorny legal issues and the personal frustrations involved.
Legal experts warn that the lack of clear laws regarding mandatory quarantines will cause widespread confusion. And as states face difficult choices while putting residents under quarantine for the coronavirus, they are bracing for the inevitable wrangling in the courts.
“There are real risks with mandatory measures like this,” said Amy Kapczynski, a law professor at Yale Law School who helped to bring a 2016 federal lawsuit over an Ebola virus quarantine in Connecticut that is still on appeal. “In part because they are not implemented very often, they are difficult to implement well.”
In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear announced over the weekend that a court issued a quarantine order against a 53-year old rural resident who refused to cooperate with health authorities after he tested positive and was told to isolate himself. The county sheriff stationed a deputy outside his house.
“It’s a step I hoped I’d never have to take, but we can’t allow one person who we know has the virus to refuse to protect their neighbors,” Mr. Beshear said. “We will do it again if we have to.”
The man’s wife, who called a local television station but declined to identify herself because she said the family had been receiving death threats, expressed confusion, claiming that the test was negative. The court records are sealed.
In Texas, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the state Supreme Court assigned a few judges from each region to be ready around the clock to issue mandatory quarantine orders.
Roughly nine million residents in Northern California counties have been ordered to “shelter in place,” facing fines if they do not. Since it allows some moving around for groceries and other essentials, the policy is less draconian than a quarantine, which is meant to separate people known to have been exposed from everyone else.
In Westchester, Mr. Roberts said he had called the hotline number listed on the quarantine about 10 times and was told something different each time, no matter what topic he broached.
Who will deliver food? They had no information on food deliveries, Mr. Roberts said.
Who will deliver medicine, diapers and baby wipes? They could, he was told, but it might take a couple days. Couldn’t neighbors help?
Sometimes the written quarantine orders contradicted what the Westchester County nurses who came to test them said. The paper orders said they could go into the yard, but the nurses ordered them not to even open the door except to accept food. The order said to leave trash right outside. The nurses said to keep it inside and someone would collect it.
The right to quarantine individuals is most widely held by states and local governments under their “police powers” to protect public health.
Laws vary by state, but generally accepted medical guidelines suggest using quarantines as a last resort, informing those under quarantine of the reasons and ensuring the right of appeal. Adequate care is also essential.
In October 2014, the state of Connecticut forced eight people into quarantine when fears about the Ebola virus crested globally.
“You feel a bit like a pawn,” said Ryan Boyko, 36, then a Yale graduate student who was quarantined, and now is the founder of a Boston company called Embark Veterinary that analyzes dog DNA.
“You don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and you don’t know when you will get your freedom back,” he said.
A federal lawsuit over that quarantine is still on appeal. “Even if it was justified, which it was not, the way in which the quarantine was imposed and maintained was unlawful,” said Michael J. Wishnie, also a Yale Law School professor.
Every virus has different properties, and the coronavirus is already far more widespread than the concentration of Ebola in West Africa.
Given that Ebola only spreads via direct physical contact with the bodily fluids of someone infected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended self-monitoring for 21 days, not a quarantine.
Eight people, including Mr. Boyko, sued Connecticut over the way their quarantine was implemented.
Mr. Boyko and Laura Skrip, both graduate students at the Yale School of Public Health, went to Liberia for three weeks in September 2014 to help build a central database for the Ministry of Health. They were not exposed to any victims, but after Mr. Boyko came down with two mild fevers, both students were forced into quarantine in New Haven, Conn. — even though he tested negative for Ebola.
Police officers stationed in front of their dwellings turned people away, although Yale sometimes interceded to deliver supplies.
Nathaniel Sieh, his wife, Louise Mensah-Sieh, and their four children had just arrived from Liberia when they were also quarantined for three weeks in nearby West Haven — in one room in a relative’s chilly basement.
Bishop Harmon D. Yalartai, a pillar of the Liberian immigrant community, hurried to welcome them with bags brimming with bread, milk, pastries and other groceries. A police officer ordered him to leave with the groceries.
“It has a stigma and a lot of fear around it because everybody is afraid and they wanted to be cautious, and rightly so, but there can be too much misunderstanding,” said the cleric. “Maybe the same thing will happen with the coronavirus.” The problem then, which remains today, is that the legal parameters around a quarantine remain murky because they have not been challenged in recent decades.
The lawsuit, filed in February 2016, argued that the quarantine violated basic rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments. Judge Alfred V. Covello of federal court in Connecticut dismissed the entire case in 2017.
Citing an early 20th-century precedent, the judge ruled that the state could quarantine people coming from an area where some 11,000 people died, even if the eight did not show symptoms.
In court documents related to the appeal, both sides noted that the ruling found the old case laws underdeveloped. Often rooted in anti-immigrant biases, they lacked robust modern interpretations of civil liberties.
“We cannot rule out that politics, prejudice and other local circumstances might drive officials to make choices contrary to C.D.C. approaches, contrary to science and contrary to law,” Mr. Wishnie said.
Back in Westchester, the eight people — including Mr. Roberts’s mother-in-law, 79, and an 18-month-old baby girl, the daughter of a family friend — share a small, one-story house of about 1,200 square feet.
Mr. Roberts’s daughter Christina, 20, was having problems breathing before she went to Putnam General Hospital on Thursday evening. The quarantine was imposed Friday afternoon. Her coronavirus test came back negative on Saturday, but she did have a respiratory infection.
When Mr. Roberts inquired about an appeal, he said he was told to call the Legal Aid Society. The organization said it only handled criminal matters. The police questioned whether the quarantine order was legal. The problem, not limited to New York, seems to be that so many new regulations are being introduced at once that various government agencies do not coordinate the rules.
In Mr. Roberts’s case, after The New York Times inquired about his situation, health officials moved quickly to examine the records and the medical test results. State officials told Mr. Roberts that his household ended up on a list for mandatory quarantine where the household did not belong, he said. Earlier this week, with all their results negative, the quarantine was lifted.
Mr. Roberts expressed relief but was still rattled. “The confusion and inability to get any reliable info was the worst,” he wrote by text message. “Made us feel completely powerless.”
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