Editorial: Civil liberties in the time of coronavirus


Americans are a mobile, energetic people with a fierce attachment to personal liberty. We generally believe in doing what we please without having to get permission from the government. We don’t like being told what we can and can’t do.

In a free and democratic society, these are healthy attitudes. But in an emergency, they can override good judgment. Examples from the past week: Chicago police on Saturday broke up at least two house parties after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order, St. Patrick’s Day revelers celebrated in crowded pubs the weekend before that holiday, college students partied on Florida beaches and the governor of Oklahoma tweeted gleefully that he was “eating with my kids and all my fellow Oklahomans” in a “packed” restaurant.

Since Saturday’s order from Pritzker, the space for people to behave irresponsibly in Illinois has shrunk. Pritzker shut down restaurants and bars. Some Florida communities closed their beaches. The Oklahoma governor deleted that tweet and declared a state of emergency.

In a war, natural disaster or other crisis, many measures that would normally be regarded as intolerable intrusions on personal autonomy are entirely justified. One person doesn’t have the right to recklessly expose others to a potentially lethal virus. Mandatory quarantines have long been allowed for serious infectious diseases. So has compulsory vaccination.

Sensible vigilance, however, can veer into panic. During World War I, thousands of Americans were imprisoned merely for opposing the war. During World War II, the federal government interned 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. Neither policy looks defensible in retrospect.

So any measures taken to combat the new coronavirus have to be scrutinized for necessity and value. Infringements on freedom should not be imposed without a very good reason, even in an emergency.

From a legal and constitutional point of view, governmental agencies have considerable authority to enforce rules to combat infectious diseases. The courts have generally been reluctant to interfere with these authorities. But their latitude is not unlimited. “The more restrictive the measures, the more medically validated justification you need,” says Colleen Connell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

A nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 was involuntarily quarantined for three days when she arrived at the Newark, N.J., airport, on suspicion that she had been infected. She went to court, claiming violation of various rights. The suit ended in a settlement in which New Jersey agreed to grant certain protections to anyone quarantined, such as the right to a lawyer and the right to contest the decision.

We are not on such treacherous ground with COVID-19. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order lets Illinoisans leave home to go to the grocery, pharmacy, medical facility, gas station or essential workplace, or just to take a walk. Roads and airports will stay open, and public transit will keep operating.

Under the circumstances, the steps taken so far are prudent precautions that don’t demand too much of citizens as the pandemic intensifies.

History has shown the key to success in combating epidemics of infectious disease comes from voluntary cooperation of the public in the needed safeguards. Confronted by a frightening contagion, most people in Illinois have shown a willingness to do their part. That’s the best way to control the pandemic – and to avoid greater limits on our freedom.

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