DeSantis’ order on checkpoints to impede Louisiana motorists heading to FL could face legal challenges

Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Impeding travelers coming to Florida from areas highly infected with coronavirus may or may not be good public health policy, but its constitutionality and fairness likely will be challenged.

“These issues raise some serious constitutional questions,” says professor Stephen Griffin, at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. The virus is rampant in Louisiana, which is on lockdown, with 2,746 confirmed cases and 119 deaths reported through Friday evening.

Griffin was reacting to reports Friday that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will halt motorists traveling into Florida from points west, particularly from Louisiana, and subject them to 14-day quarantine in hopes of slowing the migration of COVID-19  infections from areas under lockdown orders.

Louisiana is the home of New Orleans, an international tourism destination, which accounts for nearly half the cases and half the fatalities in Louisiana.

“There’s a fear that as New Orleans becomes more of a hotspot that you could have an influx of people into the Florida Panhandle from Louisiana,” DeSantis said at a press conference.

“All we’re trying to do is keep our residents here safe. If you’re coming from one of the epicenters, we probably think you should follow the directions of your state and local officials and if they’re telling you to shelter in place, then do that and don’t come here, because we’re trying to protect our folks.”

He noted that I-10 runs straight from New Orleans into north Florida, where a swath of counties has not yet reported any infections and hopes to stay virus-free. The Florida Phoenix wrote recently about those counties with zero COVID-19 infections.

Griffin said COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, presents difficult questions for Americans accustomed to traveling freely.

“These are citizens of the United States,” Griffin said, and their right to travel is protected by the “privileges or immunities clause” of the 14th Amendment. That clause prohibits discrimination that favors one state’s residents over another state’s residents.

Griffin said DeSantis would be on surer legal footing if he ordered a statewide lockdown in Florida that did not set different rules for residents than for non-residents.

“The borders are not the real issue. The issue is the virus,” he said.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who issued a statewide stay-home order on March 22, did not criticize DeSantis’ order, which reflects similar measures imposed in Texas, also on lockdown. Texas reported 1,731 confirmed cases of infection and 23 deaths through Friday evening.

“To the degree that what they’re doing and saying underscores what I’m saying – and that is, people need to take this seriously, that we have a significant issue here in Louisiana, with the case count and the trajectory we’re on in terms of case growth – I think that that is helpful,” Edwards said of DeSantis’ order during a press conference Friday.

“I am encouraging people from Louisiana to stay home, so I think it should be a small number of people who are on the road going into Texas or going into Florida.  I’ve got my hands full here with responding to this crisis, and I’m not going to second-guess or criticize what other governors are doing or not doing.”

DeSantis’ latest executive order restricts travel by roadways into Florida from any area “with substantial community spread” and specifically from the state of Louisiana. That could include motorists from states such as New York and Illinois that have shelter-in-place orders, and the number of significantly infected areas is expected to grow.

The governor’s executive order Friday calls for checkpoints to be established where drivers of vehicles other than commercial trucks and public-service vehicles will be required to disclose their point of origin and the address where they will quarantine at their own expense for 14 days if so ordered.

It expands on a previous order in which passengers arriving on planes from New York are required to quarantine themselves for 14 days. New York, on lockdown, is considered the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. DeSantis said New Yorkers are flocking to their Florida getaways and some are bringing the virus with them.

DeSantis cites his authority under state and national emergency declarations, saying Florida has become a refuge destination for people fleeing from states with shelter-in-place orders. Florida has no such order, but individual counties are imposing them.

Violators are subject to 60 days in jail and $500 fines.