Trump extends social distancing rules, states push quarantines

President Donald Trump extended the voluntary virus guidelines until April 30. Several states enacted quarantines on people from New York.

David Goldman/AP
A member of the Rhode Island National Guard talks with a motorist with New York license plates at a checkpoint on I-95. Motorists were asked to provide contact information and are told to self-quarantine for two weeks, March 28, 2020, in Hope Valley, Rhode Island.

President Donald Trump on Sunday extended the national voluntary social distancing guidelines for a month, bowing to public-health experts who told him the coronavirus pandemic could claim more than 100,000 lives in the U.S., perhaps significantly more, if not enough is done to fight it.

It was a stark shift in tone by the president, who only days ago mused about the country reopening in a few weeks. From the Rose Garden, he said his Easter revival hopes had only been “aspirational.”

The initial 15-day period of social distancing urged by the federal government expires Monday and Mr. Trump had expressed interest in relaxing the national guidelines at least in parts of the country less afflicted by the pandemic. But instead he decided to extend the guidelines through April 30, a tacit acknowledgment he'd been too optimistic. Many states and local governments have stiffer controls in place on travel and gatherings.

It was a weekend of shifting winds. On Saturday, President Trump backed away from calling for a quarantine for coronavirus hotspots in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, instead directing that a “strong Travel Advisory” be issued to stem the spread of the outbreak.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that the CDC was urging residents of the three states “to refrain from non-essential travel for the next 14 days.”

The notion of a quarantine had been advocated by several governors, including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who sought to halt travelers from the heavily affected areas to their states. But it drew swift criticism from the leaders of the states in question, who warned it would spark panic in a populace already suffering under the virus.

Mr. Trump announced he reached the decision after consulting with the White House task force leading the federal response and the governors of the three states. He said he had directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "to issue a strong Travel Advisory, to be administered by the Governors, in consultation with the Federal Government.”

He added: “A quarantine will not be necessary.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has criticized the federal government’s response as his state became the country's virus epicenter, said roping off states would amount to “a federal declaration of war.” Mr. Cuomo said the prospect of a quarantine didn't come up when he spoke with Mr. Trump earlier Saturday, adding that he believed it would be illegal, economically catastrophic, “preposterous,” and shortsighted when other parts of the U.S. are seeing cases rise, too.

“If you start walling off areas all across the country, it would be totally bizarre, counterproductive, anti-American, anti-social,” Mr. Cuomo told CNN. He added that locking down the nation’s financial capital would shock the stock market and “paralyze the economy” at a time when Mr. Trump has indicated he’s itching to get the economy back on track.

Mr. Trump made his initial remarks while on a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, to see off a U.S. Navy hospital ship heading to New York City to help with the pandemic. At the event, he spoke to a sparse crowd at the naval base and cautioned Americans to take virus protections, even though he himself, at 73, is in a high-risk category and among those who have been advised to refrain from all non-essential travel.

The federal government is empowered to take measures to prevent the spread of communicable diseases between states, but it's not clear that means Mr. Trump can ban people from leaving their state. It has never been tested in the modern era – and in rare cases when any quarantine was challenged, the courts generally sided with public health officials.

Courts have ruled consistently for years that the authority to order quarantines inside states rests almost entirely with the states, under provisions in the Constitution ceding power not explicitly delegated to the federal government to states. The federal government, though, would have power under constitutional clauses regulating commerce to quarantine international travelers or those traveling state to state who might be carriers of deadly diseases.

Still, “it is entirely unprecedented that governors or the president would prevent people from traveling from one state to another during an infectious disease outbreak," said Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor and public health specialist who questioned Mr. Trump's ability to order a quarantine on states.

But as Mr. Trump traveled to Norfolk, he tweeted: “I am giving consideration to a QUARANTINE of developing “hot spots”, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A decision will be made, one way or another, shortly.”

“A lot of the states that are infected but don’t have a big problem, they’ve asked me if I’ll look at it, so we’re going to look at it,” Mr. Trump said.

When asked about legal authority for quarantine, the incoming White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said officials are “evaluating all the options right now.”

The governors of Florida, Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas already have ordered people arriving from the New York area to self-quarantine for at least 14 days upon arrival. In a more dramatic step, Rhode Island police have begun pulling over drivers with New York plates so that the National Guard can collect contact information and inform them of a mandatory, 14-day quarantine.

The Rhode Island National Guard started going door to door on Saturday in coastal areas to inform any New Yorkers who may have come to the state that they must self-quarantine for 14 days while Gov. Gina Raimondo expanded the mandatory self-quarantine to anyone visiting the state.

Governor Raimondo also ordered residents to stay at home, with exceptions for getting food, medicine, or going to the doctor, and ordered nonessential retail businesses to close Monday until April 13 to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. She also directed realtors and hotel operators to include new requirements that any out-of-state residents must quarantine for 14 days in their purchase agreements.

State Police set up a checkpoint on I-95 in Hope Valley on Friday where drivers with New York license plates must stop and provide contact information and were told to self-quarantine for two weeks, WPRI.com reported.

Mr. Trump said the idea of isolating many in the trio of Democratic strongholds in the Northeast was pushed by Mr. DeSantis, one of the president's most outspoken supporters. It came a day after Mr. Trump made clear he wanted governors to be grateful when asking for federal support for the pandemic.

Mr. Trump said people “go to Florida and a lot of people don’t want that. So we’ll see what happens." He later clarified it would not affect truckers or people transiting through, and would not affect trade.

Florida is a perennial swing state, and one Mr. Trump must win come November – plus he recently moved his residence from New York to Florida. It also has a population of 21 million with a large percentage of old people, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Mr. DeSantis confirmed he had spoken with the president about the possibility of a quarantine for the New York City area. Speaking Saturday to reporters, Mr. DeSantis said Florida will soon set up a checkpoint along Interstate 95 to screen travelers from that area, similar to one already in place along Interstate 10 to screen people from Louisiana. Many airports in Florida also are screening travelers from certain areas, requiring them to self-isolate for 14 days.

The U.S. leads the world in reported cases with more than 121,000. There were roughly 2,000 deaths recorded by Saturday night, according to John Hopkins University.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Saturday night that he's been in communication with Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence and that their guidance “does not change the rules that have been established and in place for over a week now" in New Jersey. He said the frontline response effort, like health care and supermarket workers, are still needed. “I encourage all New Jerseyans to continue practicing aggressive social distancing and take personal responsibility to help us get through this public health emergency.”

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, also a Democrat, said at a news conference that Mr. Trump’s words about a quarantine have created a “certain amount of confusion" and that "confusion can lead to panic.” He said such a quarantine order would be “impossible to enforce given the spider web of roads" and that he hoped the White House would clarify what it wants.

After speaking in Norfolk, Mr. Trump watched as the USS Comfort slowly made its way out of port. The 1,000-bed hospital ship had been undergoing planned maintenance, but was rushed back into service to aid the city.

It is scheduled to arrive Monday at a Manhattan pier days after its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, arrived in Los Angeles to perform a similar duty on the West Coast.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Ms. Long reported from Washington. AP writers Lisa Rathke and David Goldman in Rhode Island, Jennifer Peltz in New York City, Matt Perrone, Jill Colvin and Michael Balsamo in Washington, Michael Tarm in Chicago, Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, Curt Anderson in Miami and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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