Virtual dinner parties and cocktail hours have grown in popularity as Americans deal with restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As people grow weary of getting together only through Zoom, Skype, or other video conferencing apps, they might be tempted to bend or break quarantine rules. Believing little or no danger exists. However, some people have received civil and criminal citations for violating stay-at-home and social-distancing orders. Even as protests mount against orders preventing gatherings, you need to remember the potential legal consequences of having guests over during quarantine.

Punishment can include fines and even criminal sanctions

It seems that most government authorities would rather discourage people from getting together than punish those who do, but sanctions have in fact been leveled for violation of quarantine rules. In Chicago, where hosting a party can trigger a fine of up to $5,000, the police superintendent warned that his department would be monitoring social media to find violators. Many states consider violating a public health order to be a misdemeanor, and even in locations where a specific criminal statute does not exist, prosecutors may find other authority to punish individuals who host unsafe events. One example of this occurred in New Jersey, where parents who had invited several families to their home were charged with child endangerment.

Are anti-gathering orders constitutional?

Some critics of stringent quarantine measures have claimed that the rules violate citizens’ First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably. The constitutional guarantee is a bit more complicated than that, however. Government authorities are permitted to place restrictions on the time, place, and manner of gatherings. What’s more, state and local governments are empowered to fight the spread of contagious diseases. Temporary restrictions that are reasonably related to the prevention of outbreaks go back to the earliest days of the United States, so attempting to overturn such a rule in federal court on constitutional grounds would be difficult.

If you’re facing either civil or criminal sanctions in connection with a gathering at your home, you can learn about the specific rules that apply in your area by consulting a qualified attorney. Together, you can determine how to confront authorities about factual or legal errors they might have made in an attempt to enforce a quarantine order.

 

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