This article discusses how, unlike China and Italy, United States law requires that states be responsible for most actions taken to address outbreaks.
Social distancing measures, such as so-called “safer-at-home” or “stay-at-home” orders, represent one of the most important and impactful interventions currently available to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. As of April 2, more than 270 million U.S. residents are now living in states that have adopted such policies. However, this also means that (a) 60+ million residents live in states that do not yet have statewide policies; and (b) there may be significant variations from state-to-state concerning what type of businesses may stay open, or in which types of travel-related activities people may engage.
Couldn’t, or shouldn’t, the federal government take charge and put in place a national stay-at-home law? Region-wide or national action has helped other countries manage the spread of the virus.
As Lawrence Gostin and Sarah Wetter discuss in this Atlantic article, U.S. law gives the states, through their “police powers,” most of the burden of infectious disease control, and most of the power to implement measures such as quarantine and restricting large gatherings. The federal government plays a significant role in managing areas like interstate and international travel, and also plays a significant role in health communication and offering guidance — many states, for example, have referenced the Department of Homeland Security’s guidance on the essential critical infrastructure workforce in their executive orders. However, the idea of a nationwide lockdown not only would be constitutionally troubling for being a usurpation of state authority, but court reviews of such an action would find it both overboard and likely unenforceable.