In this blog, we will be looking at quarantine as it exists at the moment. We might call it “Quarantine Lite.”
Many of the restrictions which were employed from March until May have been eased or lifted. Although others are still in place, the restrictions still in place don’t meet the conditions for strict quarantine. Instead, a compromise has been employed that balances protecting the greater good through public health restrictions, and protecting individual civil liberties.
Properly implemented and enforced, quarantine works. Isolating those who have been exposed to a pathogen — such as COVID-19 — until the period of infectiousness passes is a time-tested way of blunting the spread of disease. It has been used for thousands of years. The fact that it works is well known and scientific method is not needed to prove such. Although quarantine places limits on mobility and association with others, at times those restrictions are necessary.
The delicate balance between public health and civil liberties is never stable. In recent years, the civil liberties defined in the Constitution and interpreted by the Supreme Court have been in ascendance. Relevantly among these are the freedom to choose a religion, to speak out against a movement, and to assemble in protest – including against our own government. Further, they allow us the ability as individual to pursue health, happiness, and a life of liberty. But all of these liberties can be curtailed or abridged if the government can show a compelling interest in doing so. For instance, if a pandemic had a 50% mortality rate, claims of civil liberties would obviously be swamped by the need to avoid the possible death of one-half the population.
Thus, even though quarantine (by definition) limits our civil liberties, the power to do so in times of emergency is considerable. It is a power afforded to the States by the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. In 1824, the Supreme Court entrenched this principle in our legal catechism in Gibbons v. Ogden, holding that quarantine laws “form a portion of that immense mass of legislation which embraces everything within the territory of a state not surrendered to the general government.” To strike a balance between doing what is right for the good of society and at the same time protecting our way of life as individuals has proved difficult. Thus, we are living in the time of a compromise – Quarantine Lite. And the terms of this less-filling alternative vary from state to state. As states move out of lockdown, there are various state and local requirements (such as wearing masks in public) and restrictions (such as keeping restaurants and bars closed, or restricting their capacity) that are meant to prevent or at least blunt a resurgence of the epidemic. In some states — see Florida, for a dramatic example — opening back up too soon has proved a public health mistake.
Managing a crisis is difficult. The first three months of quarantine were used to control the escalating pandemic, but in the bargain compromised individual rights in favor of collective protection against a virus that had properties and consequences that had not been fully determined — but which was known to cause at least some fatalities. In many places, we are now in the Quarantine Lite compromise state. Our government has entrusted the individual in a time of pandemic, when the government itself has considerable power provided by the Constitution to do otherwise, to protect society as a whole. As such, it is now our duty as individuals to maintain the expectation of our government and follow the guidelines provided, namely wearing a mask, contact avoidance, and limiting our travel.
Quarantine Lite is a compromise. Let’s support it. We will soon have our civil liberties more fully returned. When that time arrives, do you think we will be more conscious of the liberties we enjoy?