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Chaos brews in US with jumble of conflicting emergency decrees

Todd Shields, Chris Dolmetsch and Malathi Nayak, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The limits of who has what emergency powers is being tested by the coronavirus outbreak as states restrict visitors and order residents to stay home -- and as President Donald Trump mulls the lifting of precautions over the objections of governors.

Authorities can demand quarantines and the shuttering of businesses, Lawrence Gostin, a professor of public health at Georgetown University, said. That remains in force even if the president decides to urge the lifting of restrictions, as he suggested Tuesday he might do next month.

The president "implies he has legal power to order back to work. Untrue," Gostin said in a tweet. "Feds have no power to force business to open."

Trump's assertion of powers he lacks is only one potential flashpoint exposed in the collision between the pandemic and the U.S. political system. From the White House down to governors and mayors, officials are creating a patchwork of orders restricting commerce, travel and public gatherings. Some of the laws being brought into play date to the early 20th century -- long before commercial air travel or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under an order from Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, National Guard units are greeting passengers arriving from the New York area and ask where they plan to self-isolate while in Florida. Local sheriffs are also empowered to enforce the order.

What the Sunshine State can't do is stop flights from coming in.


"Governors have no power to cancel flights or prevent people from going from State X to State Y," Gostin said. "That would be a federal power."

The Federal Aviation Administration, which does have power over flights, has given no indication it's making plans to restrict domestic travel and on Wednesday refused to speculate on the situation. The FAA on Monday acted on a request from Puerto Rico and required incoming passenger flights to land in the capital San Juan so people could be screened for the virus.

Elsewhere, orders to curb the virus will be enforced by local and state police and prosecutors. That means the confusing mix of stay-home, stay-closed or restrict-gatherings orders from governors and mayors throughout the U.S.

While the police will have the authority to arrest violators of state and local restrictions, for the most part they are relying so far on persuasion. It's the belligerent and the repeat offenders who will risk arrest and fines.


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