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What Are Your Legal Rights During a Quarantine?

Photo of a father and daughter sitting in kitchen,father is doing home financials while daughter is having fun with digital tablet
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Being stuck in a lockdown or a quarantine can be frightening. As bad as forced isolation can be, the worst part can be the uncertainty of what might lie ahead.

Unfortunately, that's the price each of us pays when governments determine that a virus must be contained by limiting its opportunity to spread. In this case, of course, that is SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as the coronavirus. Entire states in the U.S. have imposed measures to keep people at home, and elsewhere in the world entire nations have done so.

It's a bit like being jailed.

But you're not a criminal. And you have civil rights — or at least you think you do.

Before we talk about your rights during a quarantine or lockdown, let's first look at government's powers to order them.

First, it's important to distinguish between quarantines, lockdowns, and "shelter in place" orders.

People who are dutifully following a state decree to stay at home are not "under quarantine." Real quarantines are hardcore. They are designed to isolate people who have been infected or exposed to someone who is affected. And if people under quarantine venture away from their quarantined space, they can be fined or jailed — or, perhaps more likely, placed in a locked medical ward.

The penalties can be serious. If the Centers for Disease Control gets involved, a quarantine scofflaw could be fined up to $100,000 and spend a year in jail.

Most of the time, quarantines in the U.S. are the responsibility of state and local governments, and they have police powers to protect the public health. This phrase is worth repeating: police powers. People under quarantine have very little ability to refuse an order to isolate themselves.

'Shelter in Place' Orders and Lockdowns

When it comes to lockdowns and "shelter in place" orders, however, the law is grayer. Technically, a lockdown is a stricter order that could impose a curfew or a ban on leaving a certain area, but the term has been used interchangeably with "shelter in place."

Whatever the name, the actions taken by states have contained the same elements: "inessential stores" ordered closed, limitations on crowd size, etc. For the most part, however, people could still leave their homes to go for a walk if they're alone or stand six feet apart if in a group.

While the state emergencies say rulebreakers can be charged with misdemeanors, police in most locales have tended to use persuasion to send people back indoors. This stands in sharp contrast — at this point in time, at least — to the real lockdowns in Italy and Spain, where there were curfews and fines.

But the restrictions in the U.S. could become stricter and begin to resemble a true lockdown like those in Italy and Spain.

If that happens, be prepared.

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