Is White House Invoking the Stafford Act to Impose a Quarantine and Mobilize the National Guard?

Announcements of a "national lockdown" or "mandatory quarantine" would not be made via viral text messages.

  • Published 16 March 2020

Claim

The White House sent out text messages in mid-March 2020 informing people that a "mandatory quarantine" in U.S. would start within 48 hours.

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Origin

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In mid-March 2020, many social media users reported receiving a text message informing them that a “mandatory quarantine” or a “national lockdown” would occur in the next 48 hours in the U.S. to control the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease. While a few versions of this viral message exist, the following text appears to be one of the most popular iterations:

Please be advised, within 48 to 72 Hours the president will evoke what is called the Stafford act. Just got off the phone with some of my military friends down in DC who had a two hour briefing. The president will order a two week mandatory quarantine for the nation. Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.

Similar reports added that Homeland Security was preparing to mobilize the National Guard:

These reports did not reflect an official message from the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), city officials, or any other official governing body; these reports were merely chain messages that made unfounded claims. As of this writing, no official announcements have been made regarding a national lockdown or a mandatory quarantine in the U.S.

The National Security Council addressed these messages on Twitter, writing that messages about a “national quarantine” were fake:

These text messages started circulating in mid-March 2020. At the time, sporting events were being canceled across the country, cities were closing schools, restaurants, and bars, and health officials were encouraging everyone to practice “social distancing.” These texts also went viral on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was declaring a national emergency.

Like many false social media rumors, a hint of truth underlay these viral text messages. When Trump declared the national emergency on March 13, he did so under the Stafford Act, a 1988 law that empowers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond to national catastrophes. 

Reuters reported:

The law, enacted in 1988, empowers the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist state and local governments during “natural catastrophes” and coordinate the nation’s response.

FEMA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, controls more than $40 billion in federal funding set aside by Congress for disaster relief. FEMA could use that funding to help build medical facilities and transport patients, among other measures.

Only the president can declare a major disaster under the law.

USA Today reported that in addition to providing more funding to fight the spread of COVID-19, Trump’s emergency declaration would authorize Alex Azar, the secretary of health and human services, to waive certain restrictions in order to give people better access to healthcare. Trump’s declaration, however, did not authorize Azar to declare a “national quarantine.”

While the White House did not announce a national lockdown, the CDC recommended on March 15, 2020, that the U.S. should prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also encouraged Americans to prepare to “hunker down” and limit their social interactions. 

While the text messages spreading this claim did not originate with any official sources, the scenario they proposed was not entirely out of the realm of possibility. San Francisco, California, for instance, announced a “shelter in place” order on March 16, 2020:

As of this writing, the White House has not announced any (or warned about an upcoming) national quarantine or lockdown.

You can keep yourself informed about what is and isn’t true concerning the coronavirus by checking out the Snopes’ growing archive of COVID-19 content. Important updates about the spread of this disease can also be found on the CDC and WHO websites.