Protecting the public v. infringing on individual rights during a pandemic

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A protester yells at Dr. Erich Bruhn outside the Virginia State Capital at a protest of Virginia's Executive Order 54, which is intended to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Matthew Rodier/Sipa USA/Reuters.

To keep the public safe from COVID-19, health officials have issued mask mandates, banned indoor dining at restaurants, limited social gatherings, and enacted curfews. But these protections also infringe on individual rights and freedoms, making many people unhappy. 

“I think it’s important to stress that under the Constitution, the government has the power that’s necessary to stop the spread of communicable disease,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley’s law school. “The question is: ‘Does the government want to exercise that power?’ And that’s a political question.”

Chemerinsky says the Supreme Court has generally upheld reasonable public health measures, even when they are seen as restricting individual freedoms. Just this year, the South Bay Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista sought a court order that would allow it to hold in-person worship services, which was struck down in a 5-4 decision in May. The Supreme Court has also ruled in favor of compulsory vaccinations and mandatory quarantines.

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