CLEVELAND, Ohio — Could Ohio shut down travel for a COVID-19 coronavirus quarantine?
China in January locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, to combat the spread of the coronavirus soon after it first emerged. A quick scan of your forehead to check for fever has become commonplace in some countries before entering grocery stores, apartment complexes and at train stations.
On Monday, Italy shut down travel throughout the country, affecting its 60 million people, in attempt to quell its coronavirus crisis, according to the Washington Post.
A similar quarantine would be legal in Ohio, if officials deemed it necessary to protect the public health, according to Katharine Van Tassel, a Case Western Reserve University visiting law professor.
Ohio has three confirmed cases of coronavirus, which spreads easily and kills about 3.4 percent of people it infects.
But unlike authoritarian countries like China, Ohio would evaluate citizen’s rights when considering a quarantine, and use the least restrictive means necessary to protect public health. Any quarantine would be limited to what was necessary in order to slow the spread of disease.
“It’s important that when we’re thinking about individual liberties, the state has to use the least restrictive means,” Van Tassel said, who studies the intersection of the law and public health. “So they actually have to do a balancing or weighing to say, ‘What would be the least restrictive means under the circumstances in order to protect the public health.’”
The authoritarian government can move faster and act in ways that wouldn’t be legal in the United States, which prizes civil liberties and freedoms.
“What they did is really unprecedented, and China can do something like that. That’s not easy in a lot of countries to do what they’re doing,” Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said during an interview last week with cleveland.com reporters and editors.
So we wouldn’t see a massive lockdown of an Ohio region, unless public officials deemed it critical to public health. Acton has said that quarantine measures are on a spectrum: if a coronavirus outbreak pops up in a school, the school could close with the goal of keeping the outbreak contained. Widespread transmission of the disease would require a different tactic. All schools in the state might close, for instance. There are a range of options.
“I’m not afraid of using those kinds of quarantine powers, but there’s the right time and the right trigger for them,” Acton said.
The state powers could also be checked in court. If they state went overboard and enacted overly restrictive quarantines measures, citizens would be able to sue.
Gov. Mike DeWine has said he doesn’t want to speculate about the possibility of a mass quarantine and said that any decision would be made in consultation with experts. On Monday DeWine declared a state of emergency.
Coronavirus restrictions wouldn’t necessarily be restricted to government mandates: Businesses, like restaurants, could legally require patrons or employees to be scanned for fever before entering establishments.
Here’s a look at the legality of the public health measures in the state’s and business’s toolbox to combat coronavirus using quarantine and other preventative measures.
If health officials decided they needed to wall off a region to protect public health, they could define which area would need to be locked down or quarantined, Van Tassel said.
The state would work closely with local public health authorities, and any quarantine order would come from local health department. If a local authority disagreed with the state’s decision, they could sue and find a resolution through the court.
The state would have the ability to limit travel on public highways to a quarantined region of the state and stop cars to ensure that everyone has a valid reason for their travel, while transportation of food, and the movement of health workers, police, emergency medical workers and other essential workers would likely continue. The state would be able to implement fever checkpoints for people on the roads, to ensure they’re not spreading disease.
Ohio also has the ability to form a militias, which in practical terms means they could hire citizens to help enforce the quarantine.
The state could shut down large gatherings where groups of people pack in together, making disease transmission likely, Van Tassel said. Events like conferences, concerts, political rallies and sporting events could be shut down. So could places like movie theaters and sporting arenas.
Private businesses, like restaurants could legally require patrons or employees to be scanned for a fever before entering to protect the health of everyone there, Van Tassel said.
Businesses might start adding security for legal and insurance reasons. If businesses fails to take reasonable steps to protect the health of their employees or patrons, they could be sued for negligence. In the age of coronavirus, insurance companies could require businesses to scan for temperatures, or face losing their business insurance coverage.
If customers don’t want to comply, they could leave, so their civil liberties wouldn’t be affected. This action wouldn’t be discriminatory, because disease is a universal leveler, Van Tassel said. Everyone is at risk.[embedded content]
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