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Can a City Refuse a State Order to House Coronavirus Patients?

A protestor holding a no sign.
By Richard Dahl on March 02, 2020 8:27 AM

Nobody likes the thought that Covid-19 (a.k.a. "the coronavirus") is present in their community.

So when governmental authorities recently informed two communities — Costa Mesa, California, and Anniston, Alabama — that they must allow coronavirus-infected people to be housed there for a time, the responses in both were identical: Not here!

The first to say no, on Feb. 21, was Costa Mesa. The city had just gotten the word that the state intended to move coronavirus-infected people into a state-owned facility in that city, where they would remain in isolation until recovering.

At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 53 Americans who had tested positive for the virus. These were among the several hundred who had been evacuated from Hubei province, the virus epicenter in China, earlier in the month and staying at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California.

Defense Department officials said that the infected Americans who were not ill enough to be hospitalized would have to leave, and left it up to the state of California to decide where they should go for further quarantine.

The state identified the Fairview Development Center in Costa Mesa, a former residential home for developmentally disabled people.

The reaction by city officials was rapid, as they immediately headed to U.S. Federal Court in Santa Ana to file a motion for an emergency injunction. On Feb. 24, Judge Josephine L. Staton issued a temporary restraining order putting the move on hold until another hearing March 2.

Meanwhile, in Alabama...

In very short order, a similar scenario unspooled in Anniston, Alabama, where city officials heard about what had just gone down in Costa Mesa. Anniston had just gotten word from the Department of Health and Human Services that it intended to temporarily house evacuees from the Japanese cruise ship Diamond Princess at the Federal Emergency Management Association Center there.

Instead of turning to court action, however, Anniston turned to political help in high places. Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers stepped in, tweeted the news that he'd talked to President Donald Trump, then later tweeted that Trump had "cancelled the plan by HHS."

By this time, you may be asking yourself: Who, exactly, is in charge here? Who has the final say in determining where virus-infected people are to be housed?

According to the New York Times, local governments don't appear to have much standing in making these decisions.

"The federal government generally relies on states to carry out quarantine orders, and states are within their rights to refuse," the Times wrote. "But cities cannot generally refuse a state's order to assist."

California Governor Xavier Becerra weighed in on the Costa Mesa situation by issuing a statement defending the state decision as the best option. Other options included sending the infected people to hospitals, where there was a risk of infecting others.

He also wrote that giving local government a "local veto" would "fly in the face of a compelling need for a centralized state authority to control and manage communicable disease outbreaks."

It appears, however, that the City of Costa Mesa really wants that veto. Can they get it from the federal court in the same way that Anniston, Alabama, got it by pulling political strings?

Stay tuned.

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