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What Does a State of Emergency Mean?

A business displaying a sign stating "sorry, we're closed"
By Andrew Leonatti on March 19, 2020

We aren't used to travel restrictions, bans on large gatherings, and shutting down bars, restaurants, museums, and theaters. But this is unfolding in state after state as the coronavirus spreads.

Can governors, mayors, or the president do this? We're Americans, after all! What authority do they have to make these decisions?

We are now getting a crash course in "state of emergency" laws.

Typically Used for Natural Disasters

Most people are familiar with states of emergencies being declared when tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes strike.

For the most part, in those scenarios, these declarations open up affected areas to additional money to aid in rebuilding. They can also redirect local, state, and federal resources to the affected areas and ensure that different agencies start coordinating their work. It also allows for the suspension of some regulations to allow the government to get their work done more quickly.

But can your governor really order bars and restaurants to close?

A Vague Term

Now with the coronavirus, we are seeing just how powerful the nebulous term "state of emergency" means for the powers it grants elected officials.

For a legislative example, Virginia's state of emergency law specifically grants the governor broad discretion over the production and distribution of food, evacuations, and other measures found necessary, according to nothing but the governor's judgment.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency earlier this month, it was to "have a more expedited purchasing and testing protocol," saying that the declaration allowed him to sidestep certain regulations to accomplish getting tests out in the field quicker.

Cuomo also activated the state's National Guard soldiers to assist with distributing supplies in New Rochelle, the site of an outbreak of the virus.

In many states, governors have taken the much publicized steps of closing bars, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, and more. In the San Francisco Bay area, most "non-essential" businesses (everything but grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, and few others) were forcibly closed if employees were unable to work from home.

What Could Really Happen?

In France, citizens must carry a paper declaring they are only leaving their home for certain permitted activities. Could that be coming to your town?

Well, maybe. According to the New Jersey government, a state of emergency "does not normally restrict citizen movements or activities." But authorities do have the power to keep people away from certain spots due to "concerns for public health."

In an executive order, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis "directs the State Health Officer to take any action necessary to protect the public health." The phrase "any action necessary" can go in many different directions.

Basically, it's already happening here, minus having to show a cop a piece of paper that says you're out for your daily run.

Of course, you are still within your rights to file a lawsuit against the government, but it likely would not get very far. Or, by the time your case worked its way through the courts, the emergency may have passed.

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