A rumor that President Trump is going to announce a mandatory two-week quarantine for the whole country is going viral, spreading primarily through text messages. “Please be advised. Within 48 to 72 hours the President will evoke what is called the Stafford Act,” it reads. “Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.”
The message, which is being forwarded through networks of families and friends, typically claims to be coming from someone highly connected to the White House. The person says they “just got out of a two hour briefing” or recently spoke to friends in DC. In other instances, the CIA is mentioned as a source.
The White House debunked the rumor in a tweet, saying “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.”
Like most misinformation, the rumor succeeds by conflating grains of truth with lies that stoke peoples’ fears. When Trump declared a national state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus, he did it under the Stafford Act, which allowed him to free up $50 billion in aid.
The administration has barred people from high-risk countries from traveling to the United States. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, also told Americans to “hunker down.” But this is still just a recommendation, and claims about a national quarantine are unfounded. If the president were to issue a quarantine, the news would come from an official statement, not from someone’s sister’s friend’s brother who is supposedly in the National Guard.
To date, the federal government has stuck to making recommendations and allowing local governments to set specific policies for their communities, like shutting down schools, bars, and nightclubs. In a coronavirus briefing on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence asked Americans to be vigilant about practicing good hygiene and urged them to take the advice of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local health experts.
The CDC, for its part, has recommended that people exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms self-quarantine, lowering their exposure to other people and taking their temperature twice a day. They’ve also urged everyone to limit going to gatherings and events.
Another viral message, which looks almost identical to the Stafford Act hoax, says just California is going to be quarantined. “State borders are closing because of the number of cases in CA,” it reads. “Businesses will close and we will only be able to move about for certain things not sure what.”
This one also carries bits of truth. On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that all “non essential business” in California should close. The statement was directed at bars and nightclubs and doesn’t yet include restaurants, which were instead asked to operate at half capacity.
Last week, a similar rumor was circulating about New York City shutting down the subways. “A friend just alerted me that her friend who works in the emergency management team at the NYPD plans to put containment actions in place this weekend,” it reads. “It will look like the metro north shutting down, limited subway service, and only emergency vehicles on the road.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio debunked the myth on Twitter, writing “NO, there is NO TRUTH to rumors about Manhattan being quarantined. Whoever is spreading this misinformation, PLEASE STOP NOW!”
NO, there is NO TRUTH to rumors about Manhattan being quarantined. Whoever is spreading this misinformation, PLEASE STOP NOW!
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) March 12, 2020
Today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that bars, gyms, and theaters should all close and directed restaurants to do takeout and delivery only. The news is based on the level of exposure in the state, which has already shut down public schools.
There’s an overwhelming amount of news coming out about the novel coronavirus, which makes misinformation all the more effective and dangerous. It’s easy to latch on to rumors that claim to have concrete information about what’s going to happen and what we should do to prepare. But these myths also serve to incite panic and prompt people to hoard supplies like hand sanitizer and cleaning products which are sorely needed by medical workers. The best move right now is to stick to official channels and stay wary of information coming through networks of friends, particularly when it evokes strong emotions.