California judge delays decision on moving coronavirus-infected Americans to Costa Mesa

Federal District Judge Josephine Staton cautioned Costa Mesa, Calif., officials that they do not have veto power over state and federal quarantine decisions and face an uphill battle trying to block the transfer of people to a closed mental-health facility in the city.

But she was also critical of state and federal officials, saying she wanted them to provide answers to the city’s questions about who would care for those infected with or exposed to the virus, how many of them might be moved to Costa Mesa and what would happen if their conditions worsened and they required hospitalization.

“When decisions are made in a hurry, mistakes are made,” she said.

Officials in Costa Mesa as well as Anniston, Ala., have sought to block plans to transfer Americans repatriated from Asia and now in federal quarantine because they have tested positive for the novel coronavirus or may have been exposed to it.

Costa Mesa won a preliminary injunction Friday to temporarily block the transfer of repatriated Americans from Travis Air Force Base to the Fairview Developmental Center, which they described as a “dilapidated” complex unable to handle infectious-disease patients.

The efforts by Costa Mesa and Anniston reflect growing anxiety about the risk of the growing coronavirus outbreak for local communities, and suggest the difficulty federal officials may have in housing a growing number of quarantined people. Officials in both cities said that they have compassion for people exposed to or infected with the virus, but argued that local facilities were not appropriate places for them and might pose risks to residents of their communities. Local officials also said they did not receive clear communication or guidance from the federal government that their facilities could be used to aid in the response.

“We felt blindsided,” Costa Mesa City Council member Andrea Marr said in an interview. “A huge part of our role is communicating with the public about what’s going on. People have an expectation that they at least get some answers, that they know what the plan is.”

Costa Mesa officials said they had received conflicting information from state health officials about the medical status of the patients, the amount of time they would need to be quarantined and how various scenarios would be handled. That convinced them there was not a clear plan to protect city residents, they said.

In its response to Costa Mesa’s lawsuit, the state of California said that the suit was “frivolous” and that its quarantine laws enabled it to identify state properties that could house quarantined residents.

Legal experts said it was unlikely Costa Mesa’s lawsuit would succeed because cities typically cannot override the decisions of a state government.

“The question in the court is can a city object to what a state government does,” said Polly Price, professor of law and global health at Emory University. “Federal courts are pretty clear you can’t sue a state government in court. There isn’t really a federal order to challenge here because the key fact was that California’s state public health department . . . they’re in complete control.”

On Monday, the CDC said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases from the more than 300 Americans who were repatriated from the Diamond Princess had doubled to 36 since Friday.

In its response to the lawsuit, the federal government argued that Costa Mesa’s suit was based on “speculation and unfounded internet fear — not science, facts, or accepted health practice.”

“Time is of the essence in this response to the public health emergency presented by COVID-19: this public health response requires action in hours and days, not days and weeks,” the government wrote. “Any act that hinders the ability of federal and state public health authorities to implement these effective, time-tested measures endangers the public health — and, thus, the safety and well-being of the American people.”

Yet local Costa Mesa officials and residents argued that the Fairview Developmental Center was in the middle of residential neighborhoods, and that children often use its fields for soccer practices, games and other events.

Haverly Horton, a city resident whose 10-year-old son has a primary immunodeficiency, said she worries that Fairview is not a secure facility and the virus could easily spread to vulnerable people like her son.

“I’d love for them to show us a plan and how they’re going to enforce it,” Horton said. “I don’t want to be a NIMBY, but I don’t want to be someone who’s super liberal and say let’s bring everybody in here and then my own son dies because I’m foolish.”

Rowe reported from Santa Ana, Calif. Abutaleb reported from Washington.

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