Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans feared contracting a highly contagious and particularly lethal virus with no known cause or effective treatment. The virus was described by Spanish conquistadors in the Americas as early as 1648, with ongoing appearances in the English colonies, but in 1798, epidemics broke out in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, decimating 5-8% of the cities’ populations in a single year.

In addition to fever, nausea, discomfort, facial bleeding and eventually organ failure, symptoms included jaundiced skin, earning it the nickname “Yellow Fever.” Many mysteries surrounded the illness, but physicians had deduced that the virus was arriving via seaports, principally ships from the Carribean. Without any means to combat or cure Yellow Fever, sanitation and quarantines became the favored tools of prevention.

Quarantines proved effective in the Northeastern U.S., but a relentless spate of outbreaks plagued the the American South. The yellow quarantine flags frequently seen flying on ships in the Mississippi Delta earned the virus local nicknames like “Yellow Jack” and “Bronze John.”

Viral Panic

The first response to an outbreak of Yellow Fever was often a mass exodus from cities and other infected regions, and in some cases legislators themselves just handed over power to the executive and left town. Alarmed that the trains were filled with infected passengers and cargo, many states issued quarantines against regions and even entire states, and at one point Mississippi banned any and all entry, from anywhere, whatsoever.

In fact, railroads had extended the reach of Yellow Fever throughout the South by moving people and livestock, and local communities were rightly concerned. Epidemics were frequent and lethal, and with the best efforts of physicians and state authorities unable to stem the tide of Yellow Fever, the process quickly devolved into local self-help that a Chicago journalist dubbed “shotgun quarantines.”

The Rise of “Shotgun Quarantines”

Despite the image they conjure of vigilante groups, shotgun quarantines were generally ordered by local authorities such as town councils, and enforced by an armed citizenry deputized by the Sheriff. Shotgun quarantines involved guarding entry points to a cordoned area, both on foot and in boats, arresting people trying to enter or leave, and preventing the unloading of cargo and passengers from trains.

States and localities passed laws establishing the rights of communities to impose local quarantines, and while they were criticized by many, others acknowledged the fear felt by communities learning about the virus’ rising body count. Some even shared the local residents’ indignation that state authorities had failed to prevent another outbreak, and while the real culprit was usually ignorance and primitive germ theory, in some cases the townsfolk were right.

Yellow Fever And Fake News

New Orleans officials, physicians and newspapers were frequently dishonest about the reality of an outbreak, worried about its effect on commerce. They blamed outsiders and the poor, assuring the world that cleaner and more responsible individuals had little to worry about.

Although no one was yet aware, the virus’ African origins did in fact mean that new arrivals to the port were more susceptible to contracting it, but when Yellow Jack reached wealthier, established areas of the city, the virus proved equally destructive.

Months before one paper claimed the disease was considered obsolete by physicians, New Orleans’ yellow fever mortality rate jumped from .3% to 5% of the population, killing approximately 13 percent over the next four years. Only when the epidemic overwhelmed the city did officials admit the full extent of yellow fever. Even in the face of it, some criticized the press for telling the truth and harming local businesses.

The routine quarantines imposed on New Orleans dropped the anchor on shipping via the Mississippi or Gulf of Mexico, leaving the South dependent on railroads to transport cargo and passengers. Even relief supplies were blockaded and dismissed, since many many believed infection was passed not by interpersonal connection, but by contaminated air lingering in cargo.

Trying To Stop A Moving Train

Shotgun quarantines were highly effective, and neither train workers nor passengers had the stomach for a gun battle with local “sentinels”, or their frequent threats of tearing up tracks and burning down bridges. Blockading river and train travel wreaked havoc on commerce and travel, and many large and small businesses went forced to shutter their doors permanently.

Merchants and trade groups lobbied states and Congress to draft legislation authorizing state police power to break shotgun quarantines and administer commerce and efforts to isolate and prevent the spread of infection. Some state officials decried the notion, but many states’ rights advocates found themselves pushing for extensive Federal interference in local matters.

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    Federal Power and Local Quarantines

    Despite numerous Constitutional safeguards against the right of interstate travel, the Supreme Court has long confirmed a state’s right to quarantine in the face of a real health emergency, including preventing access from people and cargo from outside the state.

    In the midst of a particularly devastating Yellow Fever outbreak, Louisiana asked the Federal government to break Texas’ blanket quarantine of people or cargo from Louisiana. The Pelican state insisted that the Lonestar state was only seeking to take out Galveston’s commercial rival. The Supreme Court denied jurisdiction. Perhaps more importantly, a locality’s right to impose a quarantine over Federal objection has never really been tested in court, and the extent of such a right remains an open question today.

    Local Quarantines and the Covid-19 Coronavirus

    Could a mayor or town council use the sheriff and available deputies to prevent entirely in-state operations to prevent common carriers or outsiders from entering?

    The notion sounds less preposterous as states across the country have imposed air travel restrictions targeting regions like New York and New Orleans, where Covid-19 cases have been higher.

    Many officials ordering such quarantines have deferred complete oversight, imposing only self-monitored quarantines. But as fatalities and knowledge about the virus has continued to grow, some states have reversed their originally less stringent response to the Covid-19 coronavirus. Federal travel restrictions imposed as a response to Covid-19 already eclipse any seen in the past several decades, and at present there is no clear end in sight to either the pandemic or the measures that may be necessary to arrest its advance.

    Travel in the Era of the Covid-19 Coronavirus

    During the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 19th century, many State Boards of Health even tried issuing identity cards confirming peoples’ immunity if they had contracted and recovered from the disease in the past. In some cases the cards were honored, and individuals were permitted to travel on foot or by train through areas blockaded by shotgun quarantines.

    Modern travel involves an array of authentication features, including paperless boarding passes, facial recognition and Real ID, limitations like the No-Fly List and individual travel sanctions, and fast lanes like TSA Pre-Check. It is not out of the question to imagine a state developing technology and regulations to flag and monitor a traveler’s health background.

    As to Covid-19 specifically, many epidemiological questions surround the virus, and both a cure and vaccine seem distant. Research is already underway to develop an antibodies test that might reliably indicate if an individual had detected Covid-19 or developed an immunity.

    In the case of Yellow Fever, scientific advances eventually led to a workable vaccine, but there still is no cure for those infected, and even today, anyone traveling to countries that are still besieged by yellow fever generally must offer proof of vaccination.

    With the CDC announcing that a second wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus is likely to hit in the Fall of 2020, might the United States require proof of vaccination or immunity for air travelers in the age of Covid-19? And if such a regime were instituted, might state and even local authorities use it to enforce their own quarantines?

    Local Quarantines and the Law

    Private actors have been held legally liable for obstructing an individual’s right to interstate travel, but what about official action by deputies or other local authorities? The Federal government can accept or offer assistance for states imposing quarantine and isolation methods, but its police power may be limited to state border crossings. Whether or not it can stop states from imposing quarantines remains unclear.

    Whatever the legal limits of Federal power, breaking a regional quarantine that has been duly-authorized under local law may be commercially and politically risky, as authorities discovered in the era of Yellow Fever learned all too well. As uncertain days lie ahead, the Covid-19 coronavirus may be raising American legal issues unseen in a century.