Coronavirus: What is a state of emergency and how does it work?

State of Emergency - What does it mean?

More than 30 governors have declared states of emergency in response to the rise in the number of confirmed COVID -19 cases in the United States.

The virus, which has sickened at least 1,700 and killed 41 in the United States, has now been confirmed in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The number of confirmed cases is likely to rise dramatically when more people are able to be tested for the virus.

The spread of the virus has led state officials to declare states of emergency as schools close, large gatherings are banned and, as in New Rochelle, New York, a portion of the community where the virus had gained a foothold has been quarantined.

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What is a state of emergency? While it sounds dire, when a governor declares a state of emergency he or she is actually calling for resources to be put into motion and regulations to be set aside so help can more easily get to those who need it.

Here is what a state of emergency is and what it can do:

What is a state of emergency?

A state’s governor declares a state of emergency to supplement local resources when there is some sort of natural or, as is what is happening with COVID-19, a public health emergency. That can mean providing resources such as food, water and shelter. Or it can mean having medical supplies and medications more readily available. It also can help state governments get reimbursed for money they spend.

Is the governor the only one who can declare a state of emergency?

It depends on the state’s laws regarding states of emergencies, but many states have provisions for county and local officials to declare a state of emergency. Those requests are designed to ask the state for help with needs specific to a certain area.

When are statewide states of emergency triggered?

States laws spell out what is required to trigger a declaration of a state of emergency.

Does the governor have to declare a state of emergency for state officials to act in a disaster?

No. State officials can act in emergency situations without a formal declaration of a state of emergency. An example would be when a state health officer investigates the origins of an outbreak of disease or carries out quarantine measures.

The powers state officials already have within their positions are often sufficient to handle events that do not meet the statutory definition that would trigger a declaration of a state of emergency.

So, each state has a law that defines a state of emergency. How does that work?

States have passed legislation that outlines what type of event would have to take place for a state of emergency to be declared.

Here is what New Jersey’s law says:

"Disaster" shall mean any unusual incident resulting from natural or unnatural causes which endangers the health, safety or resources of the residents of one or more municipalities of the State, and which is or may become too large in scope or unusual in type to be handled in its entirety by regular municipal operating services. (N.J.S.A. App.A:9-33.1)

What happens when the governor decides to declare a state of emergency?

Each state has its own procedures. According to The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, “generally the governor may declare an emergency by issuing an executive order or other declaration to that effect. The declaration addresses the effective dates and duration of the declaration, geographic areas of the state covered, conditions giving rise to the emergency, and the agency or agencies leading the response activities. The declaration may also identify state rules and regulations that are waived or suspended during the emergency.”

Some states require declarations made by other state officials to be approved by the state legislature.

What actions are covered by a state of emergency declaration?

From ASTHO, “The declaration of a state emergency triggers an array of authorities and actions by state and/or local governments. Depending on the type of emergency declared, and the scope of authority granted to the state official making the emergency declaration, the actions and authorities engaged by a state emergency declaration can include:

  • Activation of state emergency response plans and mutual aid agreements.
  • Activation of state emergency operations center and incident command system (ICS).
  • Authority to expend funds and deploy personnel, equipment, supplies, and stockpiles.
  • Activation of statutory immunities and liability protections for those involved in response activities.
  • Suspension and waiver of rules and regulations (and statutes, if allowed).
  • Streamlining of state administrative procedures such as procurement requirements.

What is the difference between a state and federal declaration?

Federal law allows certain federal officials to act to help states with emergency services. The law also grants the president with powers to take swift action to move resources to states that need help.

The president can take such action under the provision of the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

What actions are triggered by federal emergency declarations?

Federal emergency declarations activate legal and programmatic responses from federal agencies including:

  • Activating federal assistance to states in the form of financial, personnel, services, logistical, and technical assistance.
  • Triggering emergency provisions in other laws including the Social Security Act.
  • Easing regulatory requirements on individuals, organizations, and state and local governments.
  • Activating the National Response Framework, National Incident Management System, and other emergency response protocols and systems.
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 12, 2020, A bus depot employee disinfects a bus in Moscow, Russia. For most people, the new COVID-19 coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
In this photo taken on Thursday, March 12, 2020, A bus depot employee disinfects a bus in Moscow, Russia. For most people, the new COVID-19 coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (Denis Voronin/AP)