Monday, March 23, 2020

Is National Shelter-In-Place Coming Soon?

By Elizabeth Nolan Brown - March 23, 2020 at 09:30AM

Stay home? Just before midnight on Sunday, the president tweeted (in all caps) that in order to make sure the COVID-19 "cure" isn't "worse than the problem itself," American authorities will "make a decision as to which way we want to go" at the "end of the 15 day period" that started on March 16th.

Obviously, and non-controversially, our institutions should keep reassessing their reactions to the new coronavirus in order to determine the best solutions. But Trump seems to be suggesting that in eight days American businesses might start reopening and our self-quarantines might start ending. That seems overly optimistic (in fitting with the White House's general COVID-19 response).

This morning, the president went a step further, retweeting someone who suggested that  soon only high-risk individuals would have to isolate themselves:

Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers want to see a national shelter-in-place order for at least two weeks.

On Monday morning, Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) started circulating a letter that calls for an immediate order instituting a national, two-week shelter-in-place.

A number of states have now enacted "shelter in place" or "stay at home" orders, including California, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

"Shelter in place" isn't quite as scary as it seems, since people can still leave their homes for a variety of reasons. "Shelter-in-place isn't a legal term," explains WAMU:

In most places, businesses deemed non-essential have been ordered to close all physical locations. The federal government gives states broad authority when it comes to designating what's essential or not, but places like restaurants, bars, nightclubs, hair salons and retail shops have generally been categorized as non-essential.

Gas stations, grocery & convenience stores, banks and pharmacies are among the businesses most jurisdictions consider essential and are allowed to remain open….

No state is yet preventing people from leaving their homes completely, and the strictness of the measures varies by jurisdiction. Most states include a number of exceptions to shelter-in-place, including going to work, grocery shopping, walking the dog, going out for a run or bike ride or getting medical care.

And as of yet (thank goodness), no one is setting up checkpoints, randomly demanding to know where people are going, or otherwise instituting a police state.

But most of the states with shelter-in-place orders "have made violating the orders a misdemeanor, often punishable by a fine," says WAMU. So far, enforcement has mostly been on an honor system; I don't imagine that will last for too long.

Would a national shelter-in-place order make a federal crime out of such violations? Let's hope not…

As of this morning, details of the draft order to be circulated among Congress were still being worked out, Khanna's office said.

Who would enforce the national shelter-in-place order? What penalties it would it bring? Who would get to decide to extend the ban, for how long at a time, and under what circumstances? (The Trump administration might just decide it likes this sort of power.) Would local governments still get to determine for themselves what businesses, services, and types of travel are essential, or would that be up to the feds? (Again, a scary prospect, no matter which party is in power.)

In general, the more we trust local leaders to know what's best for their own communities, the less we risk massive civil liberties abuses and financial ruin. This is especially true in our current political climate.


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