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Gov. Andrew Cuomo, trying to calm fears amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, told reporters there are no plans to issue quarantine measures for entire cities. And if mayors are talking about that, they can’t do it without state approval, he said.
"Mitigation is continuing and is ramping up," Cuomo said on Tuesday. "There are many rumors out there - part of the fear, the anxiety. People spread rumors. Well, maybe you're going to quarantine New York City. We hear New York City is going to quarantine itself. That is not true. That cannot happen. It cannot happen legally. No city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval, and I have no interest whatsoever and no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city."
Later that day, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said city residents should prepare for a shelter-in-place order, though he said the decision needs to be "made together with the state."
De Blasio said that quarantine and shelter-in-place represent different approaches. "Shelter in place, to me, is a kind of way of life, if you will, and a more total strategy and quarantine suggests when you're dealing with a very specific, narrow area and who goes in and who goes out of that area," he said.
In an interview on Wednesday with The Daily podcast, Cuomo said whatever it’s called, quarantine or shelter in place, he’s not interested.
"That is not going to happen, shelter in place, for New York City," Cuomo said. "For any city or county to take an emergency action, the state has to approve it. And I wouldn't approve shelter in place. That scares people, right? Quarantine in place - you can't leave your home. The fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus."
We wondered if a city or a county could unilaterally order its residents into isolation, whether by ordering a quarantine or shelter-in-place, or if Cuomo is right in his claim that only the state can do that.
We spoke with Thomas Merrill, who retired in January as general counsel for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"It’s a complicated answer," Merrill said. "Local governments have the authority under state law to enact curfews and take other emergency actions. But state law also gives the governor emergency powers, including the right to suspend any law or local order he feels impends a response. So ultimately the state likely has the final say," he said.
"The practical answer is they have to be working together," Merrill said of local governments and the state.
He directed us to state Executive Law Section 24, which says that the New York State Legislature can override a local action, and Executive Law Section 29-A, which gives the governor power to override local laws or orders in a state emergency. In addition, Cuomo issued an executive order on March 7, requiring that local actions be approved.
Merrill was the top lawyer for the state Department of Health during the H1N1 pandemic, Ebola outbreak, and a recent measles outbreak. He said that during a quarantine, specific people are told that they are confined at home. In some cases, during an Ebola outbreak, police officers stood at patients’ doors to ensure they did not leave, he said. But with Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, the pandemic is past the phase when quarantines of specific patients would be effective in slowing the spread of the virus, he said.
Whether the directive is to "shelter in place," which is common during an active shooter situation, or "quarantine," the goal is that people socially distance themselves as much as possible, Merrill said.
Other experts we spoke with said the state has broad powers.
Generally, matters of public health are allocated to the state level, not the local level, said James A. Gardner, SUNY distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo. "Generally, the state is in a better position than a locality to make defensible decisions that restrict public travel on health grounds," he said.
We reached out to Cuomo and de Blasio’s press offices but did not hear back.
However, de Blasio said in an interview on Wednesday morning with TODAY on NBC that any shelter in place order would need to be done in cooperation with the state.
"It’s only a decision we would make with the state of New York, of course," de Blasio said.
Cuomo said that cities do not have the power to order quarantines without state approval.
Based on the powers of the state to override local orders contained in state Executive Law and in Cuomo’s recent executive order, we rate his claim True.
NY.Gov, transcript: "Governor Cuomo Announces Three-Way Agreement with Legislature on Paid Sick Leave Bill to Provide Immediate Assistance for New Yorkers Impacted By COVID-19," March 17, 2020. Accessed March 17, 2020.
NYC.Gov, transcript: "Mayor de Blasio Holds Media Availability on COVID-19," March 17, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2020.
Phone interview, Thomas Merrill, former general counsel, New York State Department of Health, March 18, 2020.
The New York Times, The Daily podcast, "Gov. Andrew Cuomo: ‘It’s Making Sure We Live Through This,’" March 18, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2020.
NBC News, TODAY, video "Bill de Blasio: Shelter in place ‘has to be considered seriously,’" March 18, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2020.
Email interview, Peter A. Bell, professor of law, Syracuse University College of Law, March 17, 2020.
Email interview, James A. Gardner, SUNY distinguished professor, Bridget and Thomas Black professor. research professor of political science, University at Buffalo, March 18, 2020.
Email interview, Jennifer L. Pomeranz, assistant professor, Department of Public Health Policy and Management, School of Global Public Health, New York University, March 18, 2020.
Email interview, Warren S. Eller, associate professor and chair, Department of Public Management, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, March 17, 2020.
New York Law Journal, article, "The Coronavirus Epidemic and Quarantine Laws," March 16, 2020.
ABC7NY, article, "Coronavirus Update: De Blasio seeks to clarify NYC shelter-in-place views, praises San Francisco's order," March 18, 2020. Accessed March 19, 2020.
NYS Department of Health, letter, General Counsel Donald P. Berens, Jr., to New York State Association of County Health Officials, Sept. 2, 2003, Accessed March 18, 2020.
New York State Executive Order No. 202, "Declaring a Disaster Emergency in the State of New York," March 7, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2020.
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