Skip to content
Noah Feldman

‘Shelter in Place’ Is Not Martial Law

Local officials have considerable leeway in how they seek to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Empty streets and empty streetcars in San Francisco.

Empty streets and empty streetcars in San Francisco.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

A “shelter in place” order has been issued for seven counties around San Francisco, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering issuing one for New York. Leaving aside the degree of public health necessity, the obvious question is: How can and will such orders be enforced?

The first point to note is that the Bay Area order doesn’t — at present — contain any criminal sanction for violation. It is, in effect, firm guidance rather than government command backed by the threat of criminal penalties. Some European countries are imposing monetary fines for breaking such orders. The San Francisco order doesn’t do that.