A bill set to be discussed in the New York State Assembly’s Health Committee on Wednesday could give the state government the power to remove and detain individuals considered to be a “severe” threat to public health and safety.
As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise across the state and country, the bill has sparked claims that it would infringe on constitutionally protected freedoms.
Titled A416, the bill declares that the governor or health commissioner, in the event of a declared state of health emergency due to an epidemic of any communicable disease, may detain a person or group of people “upon determining by clear and convincing evidence that the health of others is or may be endangered by a case, contact or carrier.”
The bill also states that the governor or relevant health authority could require these individuals to undergo “prescribed course of treatment, preventative medication or vaccination, including directly observed therapy to treat the disease and following infection control provisions for the disease.”
Cody Anderson, chair of the Libertarian Party of New York, charges that in its current form, the bill is dangerously vague.
“Let’s put aside for a moment the egregious privacy violation in issuing an order announcing an individual to be a health risk,” said Anderson in a statement on the party website.
“This bill offers a clear and direct path to unconstitutional and indefinite detainment, on the governor’s sole authority. No U.S. state was ever meant to have a single person acting as judge and jury, without checks or balances; if this bill is allowed to pass, that is exactly what New York will have.”
However, the bill stipulates that the governor “or his or her delegee” are required to apply for a court order authorizing a detention.
In addition, while the discussion comes during a highly publicized increase in New York’s COVID numbers, Newsweek reports that the bill itself has been in and out of committee since the 2015-2016 legislative session when it was written in response to a Maine nurse, Kacie Hickox, who refused to quarantine after working closely with patients infected with Ebola and, as a result, established a road map for the present if the New York bill ever makes it to a vote.
Hickox was detained in a hospital tent for a weekend due to then-quarantine policies put in place in response to the threat of an Ebola outbreak in the United States, according to CNN. Once released, she was transported to Maine where she resisted enforced quarantine again, winning a court order that she could come and go as she pleased as long as she submitted to monitoring for infection by the deadly virus.
In 2017, the Bangor Daily News reported that her resulting lawsuit against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie established new rules that guaranteed quarantine would only occur after exposure to the Ebola virus when medically necessary and established a ‘Bill of Rights’ for anyone subject to possible quarantine or isolation in other states.
Nick Perry, a Democratic state assemblyman who presented the bill, insists any claims of unconstitutional intent are baseless.
“[T]his bill was initially introduced to address public health concerns related to the containment of the Ebola virus after it was discovered that Ebola-infected persons had entered the United States,” Perry said in a statement to Fox News.
“There is no intent, no plan, or provisions in my bill to take away, or violate any rights, or liberties that all Americans are entitled to under our Constitution, either state or federal.”
Yet in the wake of the U.S. response to COVID-19, complaints of overreaching state and local governments have grown. In California and New York, curfews have been imposed despite protests from business owners and the general public alike who can face fines, forced closure, and even arrest for noncompliance.
In one way or another, countries around the world are adopting more extreme measures in the face of renewed surges of the virus.
Fines and potential arrest as punishment for COVID violations have been embraced in Ireland and the United Kingdom. In Singapore and Hong Kong, The Wall Street Journal reports, charges, jail terms and fines are being issued to people who mislead authorities and break travel restrictions.
In Venezuela, according to The Hill, the government is reportedly cracking down on potential COVID-19 victims as “bioterrorists” and holding them in hotels under military guard.
For some, potential laws like A416 could be a slippery slope to a more draconian future.
“Protecting the health of our neighbors is a noble goal, to be certain, but this bill forfeits our constitutional liberty in a way we can never allow,” said Steve Hawley (R-Batavia), deputy minority leader in the state assembly, a recent media release.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for TCR.