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How Are States Enforcing COVID-19 Travel Restrictions?

young man wearing face mask traveling by train

 

Mark Liddell / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states and cities have put travel restrictions such as quarantine mandates and testing requirements in place. Some states and cities have steep fines and other penalties for violating orders.
  • Although travel restrictions can be hard to enforce, experts say we should follow those orders out of a sense of responsibility to others and to mitigate virus spread.
  • You can find your state or city's rules by visiting its public health website.

Late fall and winter are usually prime seasons for travel. People visit out-of-town friends and family for the holidays or head to warmer climates to temporarily escape the cold weather. 

This year looks quite a bit different because of the pandemic. As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, many states have put travel restrictions or quarantine orders in place for visitors or returning residents. However, there are questions about how—or even if—states are enforcing these restrictions.

“Travel restrictions vary from state to state and city to city,” Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, tells Verywell. “Many states that are not handling the pandemic well have no restrictions or guidance issued. Within states and jurisdictions with guidance, the penalty can vary from $100 to $25,000.”

Does Your State Have Travel Restrictions?

You can find any state’s travel guidance and restrictions by visiting its health department website. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has a landing page that lists links to each state's health departments. 

Travel notices can change quickly. If you're monitoring the situation in your state or another state, check the public health website frequently to be sure you're up to date on the latest guidance.

Keep in mind that even if a state lacks a quarantine order for visitors or returning residents, a specific city in that state might have restrictions. One example is Illinois, which does not have a statewide travel mandate. However, the city of Chicago mandates a 14-day quarantine for visitors coming from high-risk states. 

If you are looking for information on travel restrictions in a specific location, check the public health website for cities as well as states, as the mandates might not be the same.

What Are Travel Restrictions and Penalties? 

Travel guidance, quarantine mandates, and prerequisites can be confusing because there is a patchwork of restrictions, proof requirements, and penalties across the country.

Requirements can include filling out a form, producing a negative COVID-19 test result, quarantining for a set amount of days, or a combination of rules. In each state, the penalties for violating the rules might be nonexistent or could include steep fines and even imprisonment.

Examples of What States Are Doing

Some states have strict requirements that require proof and serious penalties for violating orders. Hawaii—which, being an island, has more control over how people enter and leave— is one example. Violating COVID-19 travel orders in Hawaii is considered a criminal offense that could result in up to a year of imprisonment, a $5,000 fine, or both.

Along with filling out a form prior to travel and following rules for screenings, anyone entering Hawaii must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before their departure to the state. Anyone who does not produce a pre-travel test from one of the state’s trusted testing partners must quarantine for 14 days.

At $25,000, Alaska's penalty is one of the steepest in the nation. Anyone entering the state must fill out a form and social distance for five days. Travelers are also subject to certain testing requirements. Returning residents can opt to quarantine for two weeks instead of taking a test.

Some states, like Massachusetts, have daily fines for visitors who violate the rules. The state requires residents and non-residents who are arriving from high-risk states to either quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test result taken no more than 72 hours before entering the state.

Richard Gannotta, DHA

States are having a hard time enforcing any type of travel restrictions as well as quarantining.

— Richard Gannotta, DHA

Other states, like New York, have fines that increase with each violation, starting with $2,000 and going up to $10,000. The state’s restrictions and requirements include a combination of forms, test results, and quarantining.

Other states have some level of recommendations but no proof requirement or penalty. For example, New Hampshire asks that anyone entering from outside the New England region quarantines for two weeks, but it does not list a fine for refusing to do so.

What This Means For You

If you need to find a state’s or city’s COVID-19 travel restrictions or requirements, visit its public health website. Some states have penalties in the form of fines and even criminal charges for violating rules. Experts say that following a community’s orders is the right thing to do during a pandemic. 

Enforcing Travel Restrictions

The lack of fines in some states might be because it's complicated to enforce the rules and the consequences of breaking them.

“I think in general, states are having a hard time enforcing any type of travel restrictions as well as quarantining,” Richard Gannotta, DHA, a senior lecturer of health administration at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, tells Verywell. “If there’s not an entry or exit with respect to port of entry in place, you have to leverage person-to-person follow-up and contact tracers reaching out, which is not easy.”

States are often relying on the honor system, but Khubchandani isn’t confident in that strategy. He says that violators are “adults who are either selfish, irresponsible, unaware, or confused.”

Jagdish Khubchandani, Ph.D.

We are talking about a complicated topic like travel, when some states are still debating a simple evidence-based strategy: a face-mask mandate.

— Jagdish Khubchandani, Ph.D.

In some instances, residents have taken it upon themselves to report suspected violators in their community. “The state of Connecticut has issued citations to more than three dozen people,” Khubchandani says. “How did they issue citations? Mostly by the help of reports from whistleblowers.”

The Responsibility of States 

A nation of 50 states plus Washington, D.C. means that America has 51 different pandemic mitigation strategies. The question becomes what, if any, types of travel regulations states should enforce?

“My personal belief is that states do have a responsibility to their residents’ public health and safety,” Gannotta says. “It’s part of the question of public trust. That responsibility is given to governors and their public health leadership team to keep the citizens of their state safe.” 

Khubchandani says that we need a federally coordinated response, with states issuing guidance to residents based on that response. As a theoretical example, he says: “I am in New Mexico with another shutdown this week, but I can go to Texas within 30 minutes and enjoy life as usual."

Another issue is that states are operating under trial and error as they set up their COVID-19 travel guidelines, as well as when they change them. “One challenge is that we don’t really know with definitive and conclusive evidence what works and how,” Khubchandani says. “What is the perfect combination of strategies for travel restrictions? We are talking about a complicated topic like travel when some states are still debating a simple evidence-based strategy: a face-mask mandate.”

A Personal Responsibility 

Experts say that mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus comes down to taking responsibility for one’s self—and anyone that you’re responsible for, such as children. “Individuals have responsibility for their own behaviors,” Gannotta says. “And if those behaviors put themselves and others at risk, it’s a behavior that needs to change.” 

Thwarting a travel restriction put in place by a public health professional could harm the community that the restriction is meant to protect. 

“This pandemic is challenging everyone, because of not only the virus, but also feelings of social isolation and mental health issues,” Wonyong Oh, PhD, an associate professor of business at University Nevada Las Vegas, and an expert in business ethics, tells Verywell. “So, individual freedom, including [the] desire to travel to see family and friends, should not be taken lightly. However, everyone shares the responsibility to make the community safe and healthy.”

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) predicts that the country could see more than 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 by March 1 under current conditions. That’s a bleak outlook in the face of the holidays and the winter months ahead. 

“We know that fairly easy mitigation efforts such as wearing a mask and social distancing can make a difference,” Gannotta says.

Khubchandani adds, “People need to ask, ‘Is travel an emergency? Really required? If not, please stay home so that we can get back normal by next Thanksgiving.”

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Article Sources
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  1. Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. COVID-19 United States cases. Updated November 22, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) State & territorial health department websites. Updated August 6, 2020.

  3. Illinois Department of Public Health. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Updated November 19, 2020.

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  5. State of Hawaii. COVID-19 State of Hawaii portal. Updated November 21, 2020.

  6. Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. COVID-19 information and updates. Updated November 16, 2020. 

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  8. New York State Department of Public Health. Information on novel coronavirus. Updated November 21, 2020.  

  9. New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Novel coronavirus COVID-19. Updated November 13, 2020. 

  10. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). COVID-19 projections. Updated November 19, 2020.