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The ethical actions of public health in a pandemic or other public health emergency are supported in federal and state laws. Public health laws provide the authority to:

  • The President is authorized to declare a “major disaster” or “emergency” in response to a threat that overwhelms state or local governments. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, FEMA
  • The Department of Health and Human Services secretary can determine that a public health emergency exists. The Public Health Service Act, Section 319 Public Health Emergencies, ASTHO
  • State emergency powers also authorize governors to address coronavirus through declaring a state of emergency. Lawfare
  • The Public Health Service Act, Section 311 General Grant of Authority for Cooperation, states that the HHS secretary shall assist states and local authorities in the prevention and suppression of communicable diseases and to help state and local authorities enforce quarantine regulations. United States Code
  • The Surgeon General (with approval of the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to make and enforce regulations that are necessary to prevent the introduction, transmission, or spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the States. The Public Health Service Act, Section 361 Regulations to Control Communicable Diseases, United States Code
  • The Interstate Quarantine federal regulation allows the CDC director to install requirements relating to travelers under a Federal order of isolation, quarantine, or conditional release. Government Info
  • The Foreign Quarantine federal regulation allows the CDC Director to require isolation or quarantine to individuals if the Director reasonably believes that person is infected or has been exposed. Government Info
  • Court cases have given local authorities jurisdiction over communities to enforce specific behaviors. Specifically, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, local authorities could mandate vaccination with a fine penalty for refusal. American Constitution Society
  • Employers can require employees to wear face masks if the rule is evenly enforced for all employees. Bloomberg Law
  • According to the Washington State Department of Health, businesses can and should prevent individuals who refuse to wear a mask from entering and provide accommodations such as curbside delivery. Washington State Department of Health
  • State governments have the power to force private businesses to close. States have the right to make necessary laws due to the Police Powers granted in the tenth amendment. This amendment grants states the power to establish and enforce laws that protect the welfare, safety, and health of the public. Cornell Law SchoolGovernment Info 
  • The first amendment prohibits the government from making laws affecting the establishment of religion and calls for the right of the people to peacefully assemble. Constitute Project
  • Under the Police Power granted in the tenth amendment (see above), states can enforce bans on gatherings. Government Info