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As some Americans flee crowded urban centers like New York City to ride out the coronavirus pandemic, rural residents have urged them to stay away. Now, at least a few jurisdictions are enacting severe new rules to keep them out.
Counties in North Carolina and Florida told BuzzFeed News they will soon set up roadblocks to barricade against visitors, unless they have evidence of a home, job, or other necessity inside the county.
The standout is Dare County, North Carolina, where officials have implemented what may be the strictest ban of its type in the nation: Police have set up roadblocks to stop visitors from entering the coastal beach haven — even people who own vacation homes there.
“We have basically two roads leading in and have deputies stationed at checkpoints,” Dorothy Hester, a spokesperson for Dare County, told BuzzFeed News. Officials are granting entry permits to workers, full-time residents, and those who prove a need to enter. But she said police have been turning away anyone trying to reach the county’s 25,000 empty properties used as secondary vacation homes or rentals — violators can be charged with a misdemeanor.
“With each of those owners, you bring family, extended family,” said Hester, who noted that there’s no expiration date on the ban. “We are just not set up to sustain that, especially if we were to get some type of community spread of the coronavirus.”
One case of coronavirus had been reported in Dare County, population 35,000, as of Wednesday evening. With tens of thousands of vacation homes dotting the county’s barrier islands along the Atlantic Ocean, visitors can easily outnumber the year-round residents.
“Many of our visitors come from New York and Virginia,” said Bobby Outten, the Dare County Manager, who noted that Outer Banks Hospital — the only hospital there — has just 20 beds and no intensive care unit.
“In the summertime, when we have several hundred thousand people, and people cut their foot on the beach or get a fish hook in them, we can handle that,” he said. The county’s southern island is a three-hour drive to Norfolk, Virginia, which can take in seriously ill patients. “When you talk about coronavirus spreading here, we don’t have the capacity to treat them or transfer them,” Outten said.
Civil liberties advocates have watched travel bans related to the coronavirus cautiously, noting that the government can have legitimate reasons to restrict access during emergencies, but in general the orders must be temporary.
“The constitutional right to travel is really important, and turning counties into gated communities is a dangerous precedent,” Kristi Graunke, legal director of ACLU of North Carolina, told BuzzFeed News. “Not that you can’t restrict movement in times of emergency, but you have to be conscious of the long-term ramifications.”
The coronavirus pandemic has thrust the nation into fresh legal territory: this is the most widespread infringement on civil liberties in the country’s modern history, with shelter-in-place orders and shutdowns affecting hundreds of millions of Americans. And yet, the government has rarely, if ever, had such a compelling interest to do so.
Outten compared the current travel ban to emergency measures during a hurricane. “When things are safe,” he said, “you open the county, and this is not a lot different than that.”
North Carolina emergency law extends particular power for cities and counties to shut down access during crises, without the governor’s or legislature’s approval — a useful tool for localities along the often storm-battered Atlantic Coast. A March 17 declaration banning visitors and gatherings due to the coronavirus by the Dare County Control Group, which includes county officials and mayors of six towns, cited the “unprecedented public health threat.”
In similar thinking, the island of North Haven, Maine, passed a resolution to “strongly encourage” visitors to steer clear.
In heavily forested Graham County, North Carolina, three checkpoints are planned for early next week, though travelers will be allowed to pass through on at least one highway and visit their vacation homes. County Manager Rebecca Garland told BuzzFeed News the county of 8,500 can’t provide medical care: “We have no hope of having a hospital. And so far, we have not had a confirmed case of coronavirus, but we know it’s coming.”.
While there are a few hospitals in the Florida Keys, an archipelago connected by a single highway, police will create a checkpoint there “by Friday morning for sure,” according to Kristen Livengood, the spokesperson for Monroe County, Florida.
Stationed near the top of Florida’s island chain, officers will allow entry to residents, including people who own secondary homes, and those with work — but not visitors who are simply trying to escape the densely populated cities to the north.
“Miami-Dade County and Broward County are above us,” Livengood said. “They have had an explosion of cases.”
She fears those travelers could usurp medical resources in Monroe County, which had 12 cases by Thursday morning. “So many people are not working, and their kids are not in school, so they come to the Keys to enjoy some time off,” she said. “And it’s not safe for anyone to be traveling at this point.”
Livengood continued: “We speak to the hospitals and urgent care, and everyone says they are adequately prepared, but we want to make sure if we have an outbreak, our residents need the hospitals — that there are enough beds, not in addition to the visitors.”
Daniel Tilley, legal director for the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that governments can restrict travel during an emergency, “but they must ensure that any travel restrictions or prohibitions are no more restrictive than necessary. Public officials must also provide adequate notice of the restrictions and provide a hearing process that allows individuals who are impacted by such policies a fair opportunity to explain why they should not be subjected to the policy.”
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Twitter this week urged residents not to head to the Jersey Shore. And the New York Times reported that residents of some popular tourist towns are trying to stave off cityfolk, saying the interlopers raid store shelves and bring “bugs.”