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Things You (Probably) Never Thought to Ask About COVID-19

Multiethnic men and women using smartphones while standing in a very crowded elevator
By Jaclyn Rainey on March 24, 2020 2:13 PM

Here are the answers to questions you may not have thought about during this pandemic, like when you can tell someone to stay away from you, what happens if you don't walk your pet, whether you can press charges against someone who got you sick, and more.

Can I ask someone not to take the elevator with me?

Yes, you can ask. But you cannot legally stop anyone from taking the elevator in a public place, such as your workplace or apartment building.

If someone stops you by force, then you could have a personal injury or civil assault case on your hands. If someone gets hurt and the cops are called, the injured party may be able to press charges.

Can I ask someone to move away from me in a hallway or on the stairs?

Yes, you can ask. But you cannot legally stop them from being close to you in a public place. In your own home or private property, you can ask them anything you want.

Can I ask someone at the store to give me something from their cart?

Yes, you can ask for one of their toilet paper packs. But there is no law that they need to give you anything.

If you take the item, it may not be stealing because neither of you has purchased it yet. This is a gray area that depends on your state's definition of theft. Regardless, most stores and social norms would frown on this, and you could get kicked out.

Some stores have item limits that you need to follow (see Target's item limit policy as an example), or the store can discipline or ban you. If you take a paid item from someone's cart, car, or home, it is stealing.

Can a vet deny my pet services?

Yes. Some vets may reserve the right to deny routine pet services and only stay open for emergency care. Pets do not have the right to care because they are seen as property under many state laws. A vet caring for them is always optional.

Can I force my kids to self-isolate?

If they are under 18 years old, you can keep them at home. If they are over 18, you cannot stop them from leaving. You do have the option to refuse entry back into your house if you own it.

Can I be called for animal abuse charges if I don't walk my dog during quarantine/self-isolation?

Yes, someone could call the police or an animal abuse center and try to report you. Whoever called it in would need to collect strong evidence against you to show neglect, a hard case to prove.

Under normal circumstances, not giving your pet standard care and exercise could be cause for concern. During a pandemic, actions like walking your dog could be allowed or banned.

  • Shelter in place rules: It's fine to walk your dog in most places
  • Quarantine: It depends if this is self-quarantine or mandated by a city or hospital

Follow the CDC's suggestions for COVID-19 and pets.

Can my ex-spouse see our kids even if we are self-isolating?

Yes, because there is no legal quarantine as of the time this article was written, they still have visitation or custody rights. In places with shelter-in-place orders, parents are encouraged to find arrangements that minimize contact, but travel is allowed to comply with child custody and visitation orders.

If this concerns you, then a polite conversation with the other parent may help, or you can speak with an attorney for temporary relief from the visitation arrangement. Virtual visitation is also a useful tool.

Can I force someone to get COVID-19 testing or treatment?

  • If they are a minor or you have a medical power of attorney over them: Yes
  • If they are not conscious and you are their spouse or medical power of attorney: Yes

Anyone else has free will and cannot be forced to go to the hospital or get testing done.

Can I press charges for a virus-related prank?

Someone might fake sneeze near you, film a video telling someone they (falsely) have been infected, or other such viral pranks. While you may be able to sue someone for causing emotional distress or suffering, these cases are challenging to win.

Will movie theaters and stores lift their rules on masks during the pandemic?

Most stores and theaters have their own policies on concealing your identity with a mask. You can call ahead and ask if you are concerned about wearing a medical mask.

Most of these masks still show enough of the face to identify individuals, so they may be allowed. Many theaters are closed in general, so their policies are null for the time being.

What does it mean to be "treated as positive?"

This term may refer to someone close to an infected person, such as their spouse. It is not a legal or medical term, but it usually means:

  • The person needs to be careful
  • They may or may not be infected
  • Officials are operating as if they are infected or soon-to-be infected

This is similar to criminal law when someone says a case is "being treated as a homicide." It simply means that until further notice, officials are handling something in a certain way.

If I can trace the person who got me sick, can I press charges?

In the case of COVID-19 and most other illnesses, no.

There are criminal statutes for the intentional spread of some sexually transmitted diseases. These are called wrongful infection cases. But, there must be a string of evidence showing malicious intent and premeditation. Bioterrorism is a whole different issue altogether, but COVID-19 is not the result of a bioterrorist attack.

Is it illegal for my parent or guardian to not provide hand sanitizer or masks, or to let me stay in the house?

This depends. In some instances, there could be cases of child abuse during the COVID-19 spread.

However, hand sanitizer and masks are not "basic needs" at this time, so parents and guardians don't legally need to provide them.

A parent of a minor can make their child leave the house. If you believe your safety or a minor's safety is a concern, then you should reach out to the police or an advocateUNICEF warns that child abuse cases can increase during a pandemic.

Can I sue a company for masks or products not working?

Yes, you can sue any company for a faulty product. This falls under consumer laws, but they can be difficult cases to prove.

Read the disclaimers for the product and speak to an attorney about the situation.

Can I sue a venue or company for canceling my booking/appointment/event?

It depends. Check the company's policy or contract first. They may have policies in place to protect themselves from emergency situations and cancellations.

The contract you signed when you booked likely has language protecting the company from being sued. Learn more in our article about postponed or canceled concerts.

Is it illegal to not tell people I have COVID-19 if I was recently near them?

It is not illegal at this time, and your medical information is private. A hospital may use this information for care and reporting, but keep your name private.

I am not safe in my home. What can I do to self-isolate somewhere else?

The police and local community support are available for any unsafe situation. You have a right to safety at home, so the police will respond to violence and abuse situations even in pandemic situations. Contact a friend you can stay with, or talk to the police right away.

Can I force the hospital to let me go home instead of quarantining me?

You should not avoid the hospital because you are afraid they will "keep you" or "lock you up" there. You will be able to discuss your care plan and recovery with your doctor. At this time, hospitals in the U.S. cannot keep a patient against their will. They can ask you to stay there in quarantine, but you have the right to leave.

If you leave, it will be considered against medical advice (AMA). In some cases, they may ask you to wait at the hospital while the test results come back.

Do I need to answer private questions about having COVID-19?

You do not need to answer anything.

It is helpful for doctors and medical staff to know where you live, where you have been, who you have been in contact with, and your daily health habits or symptoms. But you do not need to answer personal questions (unless you are under oath in a court case), such as:

  • What is your address/where do you live?
  • Who have you been around lately?
  • Where have you traveled to?
  • What medications are you taking?

A pandemic can create new areas for concern. You have the same rights as before until local or federal governments explain different rules in place. Attorneys are available to discuss unique situations if you think your rights were violated. Many offer virtual and phone consultations.

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