President Trump on Friday, March 13, declared the coronavirus a national emergency, unleashing an array of federal powers to combat the pandemic. Most governors also have declared local states of emergency. A complex web of laws and guidelines determine when and how a state of emergency is declared, and what it involves.
1. The president’s emergency declaration releases $50 billion in federal funds. The main thing Trump’s declaration does is make it faster and easier to deploy federal money and other resources to fight the spreading virus. States and territories gain access to up to $50 billion in public funds for the effort. Federal agencies can waive various regulations, such as giving doctors and hospitals more flexibility to treat people remotely. The president also said he would waive interest on student loans, and buy more oil for the nation’s strategic reserve.
2. The announcement invokes two principal laws governing emergency declarations. The chief law the president invoked was the Stafford Act, designed “to bring an orderly and systematic means of federal natural disaster assistance for state and local governments in carrying out their responsibilities to aid citizens.” It grants access to an account now holding $40 billion, which can help buy medical supplies, etc. The administration also invoked Section 1135 of the Social Security Act. Among other things, it permits waiving requirements in Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. This includes lifting payment limitations on using out-of-network providers.
3. More than 100 federal powers are now available to combat coronavirus. The Brennan Center cites roughly 125 statutory powers that may become available to a president who declares a national emergency. But other officials also have emergency-declaration authority. On Jan. 31, HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar II announced that a coronavirus emergency existed under the Public Health Services Act. His declaration made it easier for state and local health departments to temporarily reassign personnel whose salaries are federally funded.
4. Governors and local officials are also invoking emergency powers and activating the National Guard. As of March 13, nearly 40 governors had used other laws to declare civil and/or public health emergencies in their states. A civil preparedness emergency empowers a governor to restrict travel, close public schools and buildings, and more. A public health emergency gives the state power over quarantine, among other things. Some governors have activated National Guard units to help in the effort.
5. Emergency declarations sometimes draw legal challenges. Presidential emergency declarations sometimes face stiff resistance from Congress, state governments or other groups. In February 2019, Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border in a bid to redirect millions of federal dollars from the military and elsewhere to help build his long-promised barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border. He correctly predicted a flood of legal challenges from several governors and activist groups. Experts say the Supreme Court eventually will decide these issues.