Mandatory quarantine into New York, New Jersey and Connecticut? Good luck

Mandatory quarantine into New York, New Jersey and Connecticut? Good luck
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Governors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have imposed a 14-day quarantine of travelers from COVID-19 hotspots — states with high average infection rates over a rolling window. What are they thinking?  

The quarantine, labelled as “advisory,” gives each state responsibility for enforcement. However, governors provide no guidance on how to enforce such an advisory. The reason is that such an advisory is unenforceable, and hence, serves no useful purpose.  

As air travel increases across the nation, major airports around New York City will likely have a growing number of people flying into these airports, including those coming from the hot spot states. Without any type of border control for deplaning passengers, the states will rely on a communication campaign and honor system to enforce the advisory. Given that most people will be flying into the area for stays lasting less than 14 days, this means that the advisory has no practical value.  

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Then there are all the secondary airports in these states, like those in upstate and Western New York, which have flights arriving from hub airports that will bring travelers from these hot spot states. The variety of paths along which air travelers from hot spot states can arrive are endless.  

The same challenges apply to those arriving via rail, bus or automobile. Without a border control system in place to screen travelers, enforcement is untenable.

Even if a border control system could be instituted, the percentage of infected people flying from the hot spot states will likely be small, which means that most travelers would be unnecessarily required to quarantine. Cherry-picking infected travelers based on the state from which they are flying is like picking a number on an enormous roulette wheel; the odds are against getting it right.  

Recall that in April when New York and New Jersey were hardest hit, the majority of cases were in the New York City corridor. Classifying all travelers from Texas or Florida under the same umbrella would have been like treating people in upstate and Western New York like those in the city. Such an advisory by other states imposed on travelers from these areas would have defied reason, similar to what the European Union is now proposing for travelers from the United States. One size fits all policies rarely fit anyone.  

So, what can states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have worked hard to reduce their positivity rates, do to keep these rates low? The best strategy is employing the full gamut of public health weapons available. The most important weapon available is face coverings in public. If every person is required to wear a face mask in public, and strongly encouraged to practice social distancing and hand hygiene, then infected people, particularly those who are asymptomatic, will be less likely to transmit the virus to others. For practical purposes, the only way to enforce such a policy is through local businesses, with hotels, restaurants and commercial establishments requiring face masks of their clienteles and customers. A face mask policy is already in place in these three states. It represents the most practical and enforceable policy to reduce the spread of the virus. A person can hide from where they traveled, but they cannot hide not wearing a face mask. Face masks are the best hope every state has for limiting the spread of the virus and reducing infections. Drop the unenforceable quarantine advisory and put on face masks.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data driven risk assessment to evaluate and inform public policy and public health.