In normal times, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union would have been on the phone with Gov. Jim Justice’s office within minutes of the press conference he held Monday. These are as far from normal times as most Americans can remember. Even the days following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were calm and placid, in comparison to today.
Then, America was under attack, we said. Today, the whole world is being assaulted by a microbe.
On Monday, Justice announced he has issued an executive order that people coming into West Virginia from COVID-19 hot spots such as China, Italy, New York and Connecticut will be required to self-quarantine themselves for 14 days. State Police will enforce the order. Those who refuse to comply may be charged with obstruction, the governor said.
Relax, friends from other states who work at essential jobs here. People from neighboring counties in that situation are exempted.
Meanwhile, also on Monday, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said city police will be used to break up large gatherings of people in public and private places.
Orders by both Justice and Williams are plainly unconstitutional, right?
State governments have wide latitude to enforce both quarantines and bans on large gatherings of people. Exactly how far they can go may well be tested in court as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. One key is whether there is reasonable public health justification for such actions — and the situation in New York City would be a powerful argument in that regard.
Here in West Virginia, violation of quarantine orders is a misdemeanor violation. Offenders can be fined as much as $200.
Justice’s order came with another closing campgrounds at state parks and forests — because he had been alerted that some of those staying there were out-of-state residents fleeing COVID-19 outbreaks where they live.
West Virginians have been fortunate, in comparison with residents of many other areas. COVID-19 has achieved a foothold here — but it is possible the death toll can be held down if we can keep the virus from spreading.
Justice’s order makes sense — and is defensible — in that light.