If you’re traveling this holiday weekend or if you have guests coming your way, there’s a good chance you live in a state affected by a mandatory 14-day travel quarantine.
As new COVID-19 hot spots erupt around the country, some public health officials said the measures could help contain the spread. But the rules are a patchwork, and enforcement differs state by state.
“We have a $5,000 penalty” for violating the traveler quarantine, Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors said. “It’s a misdemeanor, which means it’s punishable by up to a year in prison.”
Hawaii is geographically isolated, but officials said they’re convinced their tough enforcement of travel rules helped suppress the spread of the coronavirus.
The daily number of new COVID-19 cases in Hawaii has declined into the single digits.
Connors said most people complied with the travel rules voluntarily, but state and local police have jailed tourists and residents returning home.
“Their neighbors report them,” she said. “We’ve had to arrest individuals for violating quarantine. The counties have also arrested individuals. Hawaii County arrested more than 20 individuals about a week and a half ago.”
Similar traveler quarantines are now being tried by states across the U.S., but most have different rules about which travelers are affected.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that travelers from 16 states, including California, Georgia and Texas, are now required to self-quarantine.
During his daily briefing, Cuomo said state officials have begun using information gathered from airline passengers to monitor compliance.
“We then do random checks off that database. They can ask you to Facebook, show the surroundings of the room you’re in to make sure it’s a residence,” he said.
Many states impose fines for violating the quarantine order — in New York they run as high as $10,000 — but Cuomo acknowledged enforcement is a challenge.
“We are not going to be 100% effective,” he said. “If you want to really come into the state, you can drive. You don’t go through an airport; you don’t go through anything.”
Complicating matters further is that enforcement often falls to local police working with county health officials, who have to decide how much of their limited resources they can spend on quarantine enforcement.
Don Lehman is spokesman for Warren County, a major tourist destination in New York’s Adirondack Mountains that is currently monitoring 21 travelers. He said most appear to be complying with the rules but a major challenge is informing and educating people about which states are on the quarantine list.
“We’re actually delivering packets to all the hotels and motels we can get to, flyers with forms to hand out to people who arrive from these states to let them know what’s expected of them,” he said.
Public health experts said it’s still unclear how effective travel quarantines will be. Polly Price, a professor of global health at Emory Law School, said they might help, especially if they convey a sense of urgency to travelers.
“State and local governments don’t have the kind of resources to go monitor everyone who might be under a quarantine order,” Price said. “We’ve always relied on voluntary compliance, especially when we’re talking about such large numbers of people.”
Lawsuits have been filed over some of these quarantines as critics question whether travel restrictions and other public health orders violate civil liberties.
Connors, the Hawaii attorney general, said it’s clear states do have the authority.
“Under Supreme Court precedent, when we have a public health crisis, the decisions of state elected officials to exercise their police powers to keep people safe are appropriate restrictions on any constitutional rights, like the right to travel,” Connors said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a position paper endorsing state quarantine powers. “To control the spread of disease within their borders, states have laws to enforce the use of isolation and quarantine,” the federal agency said.
So far, the Trump administration has declined to coordinate interstate quarantines or set national guidelines. As a result, travelers this holiday weekend will have to sort out on a state-by-state basis whether they’re affected.