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Can You Be Legally Forced to Self-Quarantine in the United States?

If you are ordered to "quarantine," that means you have been exposed to an infectious disease and thus must isolate yourself from other people until you are no longer contagious. But can you be forced to self-quarantine? This article addresses some of the common questions on the legal rights of the government to quarantine individuals in the U.S.

Does the Government Have Legal Grounds to Force People to Quarantine?

Yes. The federal government can quarantine people, mainly based on the powers it derives from the commerce clause of the U.S Constitution. Also, section 264 of the Public Health Service Act gives the federal government the authority "to take measures to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the United States and between states."

States also have broad police powers, granted to them by the Constitution, to ensure the health and welfare of their citizens are protected.

Note, the federal and state governments may both impose certain quarantine obligations on citizens. However, if there is any conflict with the state and federal orders, the federal law will be given priority.

Is There a Uniform "Self-Quarantine" Law?

No. States and cities usually draft their own quarantine laws. These laws can either be general or specific, depending on what best achieves their purpose. Look at the National Conference of State Legislatures for an exhaustive list of each state's laws on quarantines.

How Are Quarantines Enforced?

If a communicable disease is identified in the country, either the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the states may issue a quarantine order. An example of such order is the Quarantine Order for the Novel Coronavirus issued by the CDC, outlining reasons for the order as well as what is required of citizens.

If people do not comply with such orders, the police and other enforcement organs can get involved. Federal law also gives U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Coast Guard officers authority to enforce quarantine orders.

Can the Government Send Me to Jail for Refusing to Quarantine?

The answer is yes, although the rules may vary among states. Those who ignore quarantine laws will have misdemeanor charges plus fines in most states. States don't always strictly enforce the jail sentences since putting a person with an infectious disease in the prison population often proves to be counterproductive.

Can I Challenge the State's Decision to Quarantine Me?

The Constitution gives you the right not to be denied liberty without due process of law. But this does not mean you can demand release from quarantine when you are potentially carrying a dangerous contagious disease. You can, however, ask for some kind of a proceeding to determine whether the quarantine is justified.

Can I Be Fired From My Job for Following a Mandatory Quarantine?

Not likely. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for serious health conditions. The question then becomes, is being placed under quarantine a serious medical condition? For instance, people who have been exposed to COVID-19 will be ordered to self-quarantine even if they don't show any symptoms.

Although the courts have not decided on this particular issue, you will likely qualify for FMLA leave because you will receive inpatient care (FMLA qualifies "receiving in patient care" as a serious health condition).

The Federal Government May Issue Further Guidance

In rare situations, the federal government may issue orders allowing employees to get benefits while on quarantine. The federal government's emergency Coronavirus relief law in response to COVID-19 is a good example. According to this law, eligible employees will qualify for paid sick leave if they are under quarantine because of the spreading illness.

States Have Their Own Laws

State laws may have provisions as to whether an employer can fire an employee for not showing up at work because of quarantine. Some states like Texas, New Mexico, Maine, New Jersey, and South Carolina expressly prohibit employers from firing employees under quarantine.

Additional Resources

An Attorney Can Answer Your Questions

Being under quarantine is frightening and comes with an array of legal concerns. If a quarantine order has impacted you, it may be best to speak to an attorney near you to get assistance.

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