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Can the Government Prohibit Social Gatherings During COVID-19?

Young people enjoying barbecuing before COVID-19 restrictions.
By Kellie Pantekoek, Esq. on May 14, 2020 1:08 PM

The short answer is, yes, the government can and is prohibiting social gatherings in many areas of the United States right now in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. But the government's powers are not absolute, and some areas of the country are beginning to ease up restrictions on certain types of gatherings.

Is Summer 2020 #Canceled?

If you are wondering if summer 2020 is #canceled, you are not alone. With graduation around the corner as well as wedding season, Father's Day, festivals, sports, Fourth of July, boating, and other summer recreation, Americans want to know how limited their summer plans will be thanks to COVID-19 restrictions.

Ultimately, the restrictions in place this summer will depend on your state's laws, and particularly, if there is an executive order such as a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order in effect. State governments have the power to order people to stay home and businesses to close based on the state constitution, statutes, or regulations. Some states also grant cities and towns this same authority, allowing them to take their own actions.

If there is a stay-home or shelter-in-place order in effect, you may be prohibited from leaving the house unless it is to engage in permissible activities like getting groceries, exercising, going to your job, or caring for relatives.

Under these terms, a social gathering of any size would likely not be permitted. Most states are working with police to enforce stay-home orders, but tickets and arrests are only taking place in extreme cases.

Are Stay-at-Home Orders Constitutional?

There has been frustration (and even protests) in response to stay-at-home orders in many parts of the country, with some people questioning states' rights to restrict citizens' movement. Some point to the Constitution and its protection of citizens' rights to associate, travel, and assemble, and the fact that the U.S. Constitution supersedes state law.

It is the courts that decide if a government order violates the Constitution, either “on its face," which argues that the law in its entirety is unconstitutional, or “as applied," which argues that the way the order affects a particular person is unconstitutional.

The “strict scrutiny" test would likely be applied, which would require the challenged law to be “narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest." In other words, are the restrictions being placed on individual freedoms unnecessary?

Lawsuits have already been filed in many jurisdictions on this very question, and so far at least one has been successful. On May 13, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state's stay-at-home order was "unlawful" and overturned it. The lawsuit was filed by Republican lawmakers in the state and the decision has drawn national attention.

Other rulings have declared that constitutional liberties are not absolute, and that stay home orders have involved necessary, albeit disruptive, restrictions.

It's important to keep in mind that the situation is fluid, so stay-at-home orders will have to be adjusted based on the changing public health threats of the coronavirus pandemic in order to remain “narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest."

States Begin Rolling Back Stay-at-Home Orders

As stay-at-home orders are slowly eased up throughout the country, the issue of what is allowed and what is not allowed will depend entirely on where you live. Many states have unveiled plans that roll back stay-at-home orders and reopen businesses in phases based on benchmarks with testing, deaths, hospital readiness, and other factors, while others have reopened or are planning to reopen without meeting criteria recommended by the White House.

What Does All of This Mean to Me?

Can you see your friends and family? Can your wedding still take place? Here are some things to think about as you reconsider your summer plans.

Graduations

Many high schools and colleges throughout the country have already held or scheduled online graduation ceremonies in lieu of celebrating in person. Others have decided to postpone in-person ceremonies under a later date.

As far as graduation parties go, you should check your state and local laws to determine if a gathering is permissible, and if so, what kind of social distancing accommodations will need to be made.

Weddings and Large Events

If you are planning a wedding or another large event during the summer, you will want to stay in communication with your venue operator and vendors, who can let you know if their businesses are allowed to operate. According to Brides.com, wedding planners are recommending that weddings planned through July should likely be postponed.

You may also want to look for guidance from your state health department or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on precautions that should be taken during events to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The CDC has extensive guidance for getting your wedding or mass gathering event ready, and when postponing or cancelling an event is recommended.

Of course, be sure to check with state and local law to make sure that your gathering is permissible under current pandemic-related orders.

Get-togethers with Family and Friends

Summer is usually the perfect time for cookouts and hangouts with family and friends. But what is permissible during the pandemic? This, again, will depend on where you live and the current orders that are in place.

Currently, the CDC advises avoiding gatherings of any size outside your household, which includes visiting a friend's house, parks, restaurants, or shops. The CDC is clear that teens and younger adults are included in this guidance. However, many states have adopted their own recommendations.

Summer of 2020 isn't officially #canceled, even though many of the events, festivals, concerts, and attractions you were planning on attending might be. The good news is that in most states, parks, lakes, and trails are open, which means you can still enjoy the great outdoors (while keeping your social distance).

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