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Pointless Quarantine

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eye on the news

Pointless Quarantine

New York’s restrictions on interstate travelers are overbroad and punish rather than protect New Yorkers. August 20, 2020
Covid-19
New York

At the end of March, Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order directing police to pull over cars with New York plates at the state border and order them to quarantine for 14 days or face fines and possible jail time. New Yorkers were outraged. New York governor Andrew Cuomo claimed Rhode Island was motivated by fear and opined, “I don’t think the order was called for, I don’t think it was legal, I don’t think it was neighborly.” He threatened legal action. Rhode Island replaced the order with a new one mandating that all travelers with out-of-state plates undergo a 14-day self-quarantine.

Now, Governor Cuomo is doing exactly what he condemned a few months ago. Pursuant to his Executive Order 205, New York has created a list of more than 30 “restricted” states from which travelers must quarantine for 14 days if they enter the Empire State. Violators may be subject to a fine of up to $10,000. These restrictions make little sense, are overbroad, and penalize rather than protect New Yorkers. And they are, as a practical matter, unenforceable.

The resulting New York travel advisory—jointly issued with neighboring states of New Jersey and Connecticut—targets states with ten or more positive Covid tests per 100,000 population, an absurdly low starting point. That means a random traveler from such a state has only a one in 10,000 chance (0.01 percent) of being positive. But a sick person is less likely to be traveling than an asymptomatic person. Since half or more of Covid-19 patients are symptomatic, we could cut these odds by half.

The advisory also targets states where 10 percent or more of tests are positive over a seven-day rolling average. But this statistic alone is largely meaningless. It is dependent on the number of tests being performed and why they are performed. If testing is performed only on symptomatic people, or people who have reason to believe they have been exposed or are infected, the positivity rate will be higher. If testing is more general and widespread, the rate will be lower. The data point may indicate high infection rates in the community; more likely, it represents insufficient testing.

The advisory does not apply to individuals who spend less than 24 hours in a designated state during their travels—an arbitrary standard. There is nothing magical about a 24-hour period. A traveler to a state with rampant Covid-19 transmission can go to the gym, get a manicure, and top off their evening in a restaurant but be excused as long as they complete their activities and leave the state in under 24 hours. Meantime, someone who spends two days in a remote cabin in Montana must quarantine.

The advisory also includes a lengthy and onerous list of requirements for self-quarantine and provides a phone number and email address for people to report those who do not adhere to the requirements. There is little that the state can do to enforce the quarantine requirements, which all but ensures that they will be ignored. And encouraging busybodies to turn in their neighbors is sure to increase social strife at a time when we can least afford it.

Worst of all, the advisory’s focus on states is overbroad. Covid-19 outbreaks have been highly concentrated in particular counties, rather than in entire states. In New York, once the nation’s epicenter, nearly all the cases have been in and around New York City. The five counties that make up the city have a cumulative rate of 27.5 cases per 1,000 population. Just north of the city, Westchester county is even higher, at 37.7 per 1,000. Yet since the start of the pandemic, most other counties in New York State have registered much lower rates, remaining under five cases for every 1,000 residents.

The situation is the same in current hotspots. Los Angeles accounts for 10 percent of California’s population but 37 percent of its Covid-19 cases. Miami-Dade County is about 13 percent of Florida’s population but has 25 percent of its Covid-19 cases. Shouldn’t New York distinguish between Texas travelers from Dallas County (22 cases/1,000) and Collin County (9.7 cases/1,000) just to the north—or from Cameron County (42.1 cases/1,000) on the southern border?

New York currently has 33 states plus Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on its list—virtually every state outside of the northeast. That means that New Yorkers who don’t want to add two weeks of quarantine onto the end of their travels are essentially barred from most of the country. The advisory also penalizes economic activity in New York, since no tourist or business person will travel to the state if they have to quarantine for two weeks.

Governor Cuomo is about to publish a book on his pandemic experience. One hopes that he has learned that ill-advised, poorly executed policies have real consequences. New York’s travel restriction is poorly designed and counterproductive. Rather than providing any real protection, it will simply punish New Yorkers and impede the state’s economic recovery. It’s time to revamp or revoke it.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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