When Can NYC Place Someone Under Forced Quarantine?


Professor James Cohen shared his expert opinion with Gothamist on New York City’s ability to force anyone into quarantine.

The city’s contact tracing program for COVID-19, overseen by NYC Health and Hospitals is now under way. By early June, 1,700 tracers will have been hired to work backwards to pinpoint exactly how someone became infected with the virus and identify others who may have been exposed. New Yorkers who test positive at a contract tracing site will be asked to voluntarily self-isolate at home. But if they refuse, or if they cannot because of their living situation, the city will place them under mandatory quarantine.

“The so-called ‘police power’ is very powerful. It doesn’t permit people to be locked up at random. But if there’s a good reason, in particular a public health reason to quarantine someone and to impose limitations on their, sort of, travel, their exposure to others, then there’s no question that the state has the authority to do it,” said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law School. “There are certain limits to the police power and those limits can arise from the nature of the need.”

Cohen added, “There are limits to the condition in which they can be locked away, but there’s no limit as a practical matter to the state’s right to lock them away as long as they have a pressing, in this case, a public health need,” said Cohen.

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