Wuhan, China – the epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak – has been under an unprecedented lockdown for the past month as part of the Chinese government’s efforts to contain the outbreak. As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, some are asking if the same could be done to U.S. cities. Experts say that while the government does have to power to do so, it most likely won’t.
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus responsible for the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has infected over 95,000 people and killed 3,200 since it first appeared in Wuhan at the end of last year. While 84 percent of these have been in mainland China, the virus is now slowly making its way through every continent on the planet, save for Antarctica. This has resulted in the creation of a number of hotspots around the world.
For the most part, the U.S. looked like it had a grasp on all coronavirus cases in the country, with every known infected patient having been put in isolation and their close contacts under quarantine. Most of these cases occurred in people who had traveled to high-risk areas, like those repatriated from Wuhan and the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
However, health officials are now finding the virus in people without a history of travel to the affected regions. Studies are now indicating that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus may have been spreading in Washington state for weeks before the first cases were reported, hinting at a possible explosion of cases in the state. The threat of a much larger outbreak has raised questions of whether or not the government can lock down an entire U.S. city, similar to what is happening in Wuhan.
Both the federal and state governments theoretically have the power to shut down entire cities; however, experts state that doing so would happen only under extraordinary circumstances.
“I don’t think we can expect the kinds of measures that China has implemented in Wuhan — they were quite extraordinary,” said Wendy Parmet, a professor of law and the director of Northeastern University’s Center for Health Policy and Law in Boston. That said, Parmet did confirm that the power that the government in such emergency situations is “awesome, and it’s frightening to behold.” Indeed, Parmet points to 9/11 as one such example where traffic to and from Manhattan was suspended while its skies were closed down to all aircraft.
Practically speaking, Parmet stated that quarantines and city-wide shutdowns get tricky and that people would end up raising constitutional questions. Quarantine power actually lies with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has already taken unprecedented action in the past couple of months to quarantine people returning from high-risk areas of China. However, this was only on a small scale, and Parmet confirmed that the CDC does not have the ability to pull off the sanitary quarantine of an entire American city.
As for the Army, the government body that would likely be called up to enforce a large quarantine, Parmet confirmed that there would be issues with that as well.
“Statutes and long-standing norms are against calling up an army to enforce such quarantines,” she said. “It would be deeply problematic. Our political culture is one that is far less tolerant of such things.”
This is on top of the economic strain of such a shutdown. Should one ever happen, the government would need to figure out how to provide all the necessities, such as food and medical care, needed by the people in the city under quarantine.
Even if a city-wide shutdown were possible, there’s still the question of whether or not it would actually work. Data on whether or not city-wide shutdowns actually work is almost “nonexistent” stated Dr. Albert Ko, a professor and department chair at the Yale School of Public Health. Experts are still currently analyzing whether or not the drastic measures taken in China and other places to see how effective they are.
In Wuhan, the number of daily reported coronavirus cases has slowed down dramatically, indicating that the lockdowns have worked. However, Ko stated that the number seemed to have been slowing even before the lockdowns happened. In addition to this, Ko also points out that less-extreme measures taken by some other places have also worked. One such example is Singapore, where “social distancing” measures such as canceling mass gatherings and closing schools, have worked to keep the number of cases below 200. Ko suspects that the U.S. could do a lot using similar measures before considering locking down entire cities.