Is Andrew Cuomo Trampling on New Yorkers' Civil Liberties to Fight Coronavirus?

Is Andrew Cuomo Trampling on New Yorkers' Civil Liberties to Fight Coronavirus?
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says, "We can hold them for this long but that's it." (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) zeroed in on the City of New Rochelle, a coronavirus hot spot. He mobilized the National Guard, set up a containment area, and opened a special testing center in the city.

“This is the single greatest public health challenge we have in this state right now,” Cuomo said. Statewide, 173 people had contracted the virus, with 108 focused in that city, which is considered a cluster. New York City has 36 cases.

“The Governor has deployed National Guard troops to a Health Department command post in New Rochelle to assist with the outbreak,” the governor’s office reported. “The troops are mobilizing to deliver food to homes and help with cleaning public spaces in the containment area.”

“One of the things we’re doing is we’re putting a satellite testing facility from Northwell into New Rochelle so they will set up a facility within that containment area that can be testing,” Cuomo explained. He said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had just approved the expanded capacity.

“Even testing is a problem, right? Somebody gets in a cab to go to the hospital, now you possibly infect the cab driver, somebody gets in a bus, now the person is on a bus, so this is a major advantage,” the governor explained. He said having the National Guard on hand to clean potentially infected surfaces will help mitigate the spread of the virus.

It remains unclear exactly what the containment strategy entails. State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker explained that “we had moved from a containment strategy into more of a mitigation strategy.” That strategy involves closing schools, houses of worship, and other “large gathering facilities” for a two-week period, from March 12 to March 25.

While some of these policies make sense, a threat like the coronavirus does not suspend Americans’ constitutional rights. National Review‘s David Harsanyi pointed out a dangerous threat to free speech coming out of Newark, N.J. That city is reportedly cracking down on “coronavirus disinformation,” warning that any “false reporting” — which includes misleading “allegations” on social media — will lead to criminal prosecution.

Besides the ridiculous impracticality of such a policy — will Newark subpoena the IP addresses of random accounts on Twitter to see if they live in the city limits? — it is likely unconstitutional. Such policies raise important questions about the limits of government power to restrict citizens’ rights during an emergency.

Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) has aimed to “ban” gatherings of over 250 people in the Seattle area. Of course, it makes sense for the government to warn citizens about the health risks of large gatherings. But, as Harsanyi noted, Inslee’s policy might violate citizens’ rights to free speech and free assembly.

“What if 250 individuals want to get together to protest Inslee’s ban or the Trump administration’s handling of coronavirus? What if 250 individuals want to get together to pray? What constitutional right does a governor have to stop them?” Harsanyi asked. “Obviously, most people aren’t going to concern themselves with civil-liberty questions as the threat of a pandemic hangs over them, but they should. Because, as we’ve seen, while some threats are real, it’s easy to scaremonger — think ‘climate emergency’ or ‘gun-violence epidemic’ — in an effort to chip away at our rights.”

Asking private schools and houses of worship to close amid an epidemic is eminently logical, but can the government really force them to close? What happens if Christians, Muslims, or Jews in New Rochelle just really want to gather in their houses of worship to pray? Will the National Guard keep them out?

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.