The claim: President Trump will invoke the Stafford Act to order a national, mandatory two-week quarantine
A recent viral post on Facebook claims that the president of the United States would enact a mandatory quarantine using a law called the Stafford Act. "The president will evoke what is called the Stafford act," Facebook user Jasmine Morgan wrote on March 16. "The president will order a two week mandatory quarantine for the nation."
Morgan also stated that the information came from sources in the military. The post has been shared more than 400 times. USA TODAY reached out to Morgan about her post but she did not respond to multiple messages.
Similar Facebook posts, as well as viral WhatsApp and text messages, have echoed the rumor. The claims in the messages are not true; President Donald Trump already used the Stafford Act to declare a national emergency on March 13, before the viral post was made. More importantly, the Stafford Act does not allow the federal government to impose mandatory quarantines.
The Stafford Act and federal emergency powers
On March 13, Trump declared a national emergency under the 1988 Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Under the Stafford Act, about $40 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency can be used by the federal government to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
The declaration of emergency also allows the federal government to waive certain regulations on health care providers so that resources can be deployed faster. This power is again derived from the Stafford Act, which was enacted by Congress to ensure that states would have a way of signaling for aid from the federal government in times of crisis.
When it was signed into law, the Stafford Act was mainly intended to address crises like crop failures or natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. A state’s governor must request a Stafford Act declaration for it to take effect. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee requested the White House declare a national emergency on March 12 to make Stafford Act funds available.
The Stafford Act does not allow the federal government to directly intervene in the crisis response of a state, local or tribal government, though it provides considerable resources to help them.
Text messages and social media posts to the contrary, however, caught the attention of the administration, and the National Security Council tweeted March 15 in an attempt to dispel rumors circulating online. "Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown," the NSC posted.
While the Stafford Act does not give the federal government the sweeping authority to quarantine the nation, it's less clear if this is a legal impossibility. Other laws and statutes give the federal government – and, specifically the president – a range of powers. None, however, explicitly grants the power to quarantine the country for two weeks.
The Congressional Research Service, a federal agency dedicated to research and analysis in support of Congress, published a set of guidelines on federal and state authority regarding quarantines in 2014. In it, the CRS found that the federal government’s constitutional authority in times of health crises comes from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which governs interstate commerce.
“State and local governments have the primary authority to control the spread of dangerous diseases within their jurisdictions,” the report states, while “the federal government has authority to quarantine and impose other health measures to prevent the spread of diseases from foreign countries and between states.”
How communities respond to pandemics, then, can vary greatly across the country. “The federal government has clear authority to impose quarantines on individual people for good cause,” says Robert Chesney, a professor at The University of Texas School of Law in Austin. “But it’s much less clear that it has the authority to impose broad regional restraints.”
Limiting travel within the country is generally outside the powers of the executive branch, according to Chesney, though a federal law that mandates the surgeon general limit the spread of disease, and regulations under that statute, may allow for “limitations or border screenings, or perhaps even a national shelter-in-place directive, in the right circumstances,” Chesney explained.
“If the government claims emergency power to do something that Congress has not already authorized it to do, the only certainty is that there would be litigation; it’s likely that the courts would show deference to the government in a time of pandemic,” Chesney said.
The lack of legal precedent and vagueness of the laws regarding how the government can respond to crises has led many experts to conclude that any major federal action would be subject to significant legal challenges.
“The president probably does not have substantial inherent constitutional authority to issue many orders affecting the interior of the United States (unlike foreign travel bans),” said Keith Whittington, a professor of political science at Princeton University. “But Congress could empower the president or other executive officials (like the surgeon general) to quarantine some areas of the country so as to prevent the spread of the disease.”
Our rating: False
We rate the claim that Trump will invoke the Stafford Act to order a national, mandatory two-week quarantine FALSE because it is not supported by our research. The president arguably has considerable authority in times of national crisis. The specific powers granted by the Stafford Act, however, do not provide the president or the federal government the authority to order a national quarantine. It is unclear if such power is provided by other federal laws. But current laws and the constitutional scheme, which reserves certain powers for the states, suggests that the power to order quarantines is left to state, local and tribal authorities.
Our fact-check sources:White House, Proclamation on Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak, March 13, 2020 FEMA, The Stafford Act Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Statement on Potential Emergency Declaration, March 13, 2020 National Security Council on Twitter, March 20, 2020 Congressional Research Service, Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation
Authority, October 9, 2014 42 U.S. Code § 264, Regulations to Control Communicable Diseases