New York lawmakers are mulling a bill that would allow the state to detain anyone carrying or suspected of carrying a contagious disease that makes them a “significant threat to public health.”
Democratic Assemblyman N. Nick Perry of New York’s 58th District spearheaded Bill A416, which holds that the government may “order the removal and/or detention of such a person or of a group of such persons” in a “medical facility or other appropriate facility or premises designated by the governor or his or her delegee.” A confirmed carrier would be released only after he or she is no longer contagious, and a suspected carrier could be set free only when the government proves that he or she “is not infected with or has not been exposed to such a disease.”
Those who may have been in contact with the alleged carriers may also be detained and released when they test negative for the malady in question, or if the suspected carrier with whom they interacted is deemed to be negative.
What could go wrong?
The bill’s language is noticeably vague in defining the parameters around disease type, leaving the government wide latitude in conducting its risk analysis. Should it pass, Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be the first state leader to have that power at his disposal. The two-term Democrat has navigated the COVID-19 pandemic with an array of inflexible regulations, from what food bars can serve if they’d like to stay open to how hospitals are allowed to vaccinate New Yorkers.
Perry defended his bill on Twitter. “I am an American who understands our Constitution is sacred, and provides us with the right to agree or disagree, and hold different positions on issues that may relate to our civil and constitutional rights,” he wrote. The legislation was originally introduced during the 2015-16 session in response to the Ebola virus.
“This bill hasn’t been actively pushed for passage because the Ebola threat was ended thanks to a vaccine,” Perry continued. “However, many learned scientists believe that the likelihood of such a deadly pandemic is still real, and somewhere in the future there maybe [sic] the need for people to be protected from a person or persons carrying a very deadly and transmittable virus.”
It’s difficult to believe that the bill’s reintroduction didn’t come specifically in response to COVID-19. Though it’s a serious virus, it is also no Ebola, which carries an average case fatality rate of 50 percent, with some outbreaks reaching as high as 90 percent.
It’s also difficult to believe that the bill in practice would not “take away, or violate any rights, or [sic] liberties that all Americans are entitled to under our constitution, either state or federal,” as Perry claims. Though he presents his bill as a last-stop measure for a pandemic on par with Ebola, the vagueness of its approach gives the state a great deal of discretion in locking people up who might have some sort of unnamed illness, as well as people who merely interacted with someone who might have that illness.
That’s especially misguided when considering that prisons and jails have been a hotbed for COVID-19, with U.S. correctional institutions recently surpassing 500,000 cases.
2020 was a big year for testing the limits of government power. Americans were made aware of how inefficacious certain government regulations and bureaucratic hurdles are while also dealing with widespread business closures that likely have a negligible impact on public health. At the same time, much of the country seemed to collectively question government overzealousness in the criminal justice system, with renewed calls for reform. Assemblyman Perry aligns himself with those latter advocates, though it appears he does not see how his most recent bill might be incompatible.
Billy Binion is an assistant editor at Reason. This article first appeared on Reason.com.