American neighborhoods are starting to look a lot like the beginning of every zombie apocalypse movie: empty streets, cleared-out grocery stores, and cable news warnings about a new pandemic on loop. While President Donald Trump reportedly insisted on Monday that the federal government has the coronavirus pandemic under “tremendous control,” the reality is that normal life already feels like a distant memory. Governors and mayors around the country are shutting down schools, restaurants, bars and other public gathering spaces after the CDC issued guidance on March 15 recommending against all gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks; the next day, Trump recommended lowering the limit to 10 people.
The guidance was the latest development to add fuel to rumors that the United States is headed towards a nationwide shutdown and mandatory quarantine, under which law enforcement and military would enforce federal public health orders. It’s a move that the country hasn’t seen since the Spanish Flu pandemic more than 100 years ago. However, government officials are insisting that the U.S. is far from any sort of martial law (or “Marshall Law,” as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio mistakenly tweeted).
Please stop spreading stupid rumors about marshall law.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) March 16, 2020
We will continue to see closings & restrictions on hours of non-essential businesses in certain cities & states. But that is NOT marshall law.
“There’s this image of the police arresting you because you’re driving to get a gallon of milk,” Brian Higgins, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former chief of the Bergen County Police, told me. “That’s not what you're going to see. We’re nowhere near that. This is not the zombie apocalypse.”
While images of security forces patrolling streets in Spain and Italy, the hardest hit European countries, are plastered across the internet, only a handful of U.S. cities have declared they’re going into lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19. And Higgins said that, unlike in Italy where police are issuing jail time for lockdown violations, the U.S. police response probably won’t be quite as severe just yet. The mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, has imposed a nightly curfew in addition to restrictions on public gatherings and bars and restaurants. A local report claimed that Passaic, New Jersey may also be facing a lockdown, though the Passaic Police Department told me they can’t yet say if there are any plans for an increase in street patrols. San Francisco and its adjacent counties issued a mandated shelter-in-place order on March 16, requiring residents to avoid any non-essential contact with others. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, said he’s still keeping the lockdown option open for the city, where COVID-19 cases surpassed 460 and the death count hit seven as of March 17. Scenes across New York City before de Blasio’s announcement were hauntingly normal, with both subway cars and popular brunch spots still boasting close quarters. On March 15, de Blasio announced he’d be shutting down restaurants (besides takeout services), bars, movie theaters, and schools in an effort to curb coronavirus cases.
“What we typically know law enforcement to do is going to continue,” Higgins said.
Despite the health crisis, the New York Police Department isn’t yet ramping up street patrols. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea sent a four-page memo to department officers and staff saying that he plans on staggering shifts and having civilians work from home amidst the crisis. Shea also claimed the department has enough personal protective equipment for officers, though a police union filed a complaint with the city alleging that multiple station houses weren’t equipped well or at all.
“There’s this image of the police arresting you because you’re driving to get a gallon of milk. That’s not what you're going to see. We’re nowhere near that. This is not the zombie apocalypse.”
What’s likely to happen, Higgins said, is that local law enforcement will be called upon by mayors, governors, and federal leaders in a worst-case scenario to do emergency management. A law enforcement response to coronavirus will most likely look similar to how local police have responded to natural disasters in the past. While the nation hasn’t faced a pandemic like coronavirus in recent history, it has faced several emergencies where both police and military personnel were tapped to keep order. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, NYPD officers manned check points and patrolled lines for gas and goods in order to keep the peace. After deadly tornadoes hit central Tennessee earlier this month, local police enforced curfews. Higgins said it’s possible that locations in the U.S. where the virus is spreading rapidly might see a similar response.
“When the hospitals get overwhelmed, when stores get overwhelmed and people get upset, you're going to see law enforcement step in,” he said.
So far (and given how quickly the coronavirus response is changing, it’s a big “so far”), law enforcement offices around the country told me they are waiting for orders from elected officials and otherwise conducting business as usual. In Washington, where the most coronavirus-related deaths have occurred so far, state police said that despite closures across the state, they’re sticking to their usual directives and haven’t yet been told to change anything. Amid rumors of a local lockdown, I asked the Passaic Police Department in New Jersey whether, if nothing else, they could confirm if they were following any standard operating procedures for emergency management during the outbreak.
“This situation is anything but standard,” the spokesperson said through a nervous chuckle.
While police and state law enforcement continue to stand by for coronavirus directives, the National Guard has already deployed at least 650 personnel in 15 states. The National Guard is a section of the U.S. Armed Forces often called upon for support by both federal and state executives during emergencies. The most visible of which for coronavirus has been the Guard’s presence in New Rochelle, New York, which was the country’s first designated containment zone. As sobering photos of uniformed men throughout the New York suburb raised alarm, New Rochelle mayor Noam Bramson told CNN that the Guardsmen were unarmed and there to help with “operations and logistics”. The Guard’s duties in New Rochelle, similar to their response in other domestic emergency situations, have ranged from helping distribute groceries to cleaning public areas. “The National Guard is not here to maintain a sort of perimeter,” Bramson told CNN.
Law enforcement response to coronavirus will most likely look similar to how local police have responded to natural disasters in the past.
Like law enforcement’s emergency response protocols, the National Guard’s presence during a state of emergency (which 50 states have declared) doesn’t mean that martial law or a police state is imminent. In a March 16 press release the National Guard listed their main coronavirus response missions as: “drive-through testing facilities; response liaisons and support to state Emergency Operations Centers; support to healthcare professionals; logistics support; assisting with disinfecting/cleaning of common public spaces; providing transportation support for health care providers; collecting and delivering samples; and assisting with sample administration.”
"Bottom line, our force must remain flexible, innovative and ready to help America mitigate the impacts of this virus," said Gen. Joseph Lengyel, National Guard Bureau chief, in the statement.
As of now, no legally mandated quarantine has been issued in the U.S., though several rumors of local and national quarantines have popped up over the past few weeks. Thanks to a viral text, rumors started bubbling that Trump was issuing a mandatory two-week quarantine. De Blasio sent out a tweet debunking rumors that the island of Manhattan was about to face quarantine. Both federal and state governments have the power to issue quarantine mandates. Even if they do, it’s unlikely that armed forces, local or military, will be toting AKs and yelling at pedestrians like in a scene from Contagion.
“It’s not going to be like police in riot equipment, just dragging people off the streets,” Higgins said. “But my caveat to all of this is, how long will this go on?”
For now, Higgins and others believe that mass mayhem and violent clashes with the police are far, far off. Unless the federal government steps in with steadfast policies for a nation-wide response, the deployment of law enforcement and military will be ad hoc and at the discretion of state and local governments. However, considering how quickly daily life has changed on a global scale, Higgins stressed the situation remains uncertain. “At least in modern history, we haven't seen any examples of anything like this,” he said. “There's gonna be a certain point where this could not be as pleasant as it is right now.”