As coronavirus sweeps across the US, American officials have warned that mandatory prevention measures may be necessary to stop its spread. But is the US willing to go as far as Italy – another democracy – or even authoritarian China?

Italy has banned mass gatherings and barred from citizens travelling outside of their home region.

China has forced more than 50 million citizens to self-isolate and even threatened severe penalties, including death, for quarantine breakers.

So what measures is the US willing to take, and could coronavirus besiege an American city?

Forced lockdowns

Experts say the US could eventually follow Italy’s plan to quarantine a large segment of its population, but it would be very hard and would face strong opposition.

“The likelihood of that happening in the United States is extremely, extremely small,” says Dr Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University’s National Centre for Disaster Preparedness.

“Essentially that amounts to martial law,” he tells BBC News. “Government ordered shutdowns” of public spaces and ability to travel would be “a very far step for Americans to manage,” he added.

“It’s just part of our culture. It’s just the antithesis of the freedoms that we theoretically have.”

Italian authorities check passengers' documents at the Milan train station
Image captionItalian authorities check passengers’ documents at the Milan train station

Dr Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health has said that “anything is possible” given the scale of the outbreak, but large scale quarantines do not appear to be on the horizon.

Because relatively few tests have been conducted in the US, the true scope of the problem is still unknown.

On Tuesday, New York’s governor ordered a one-mile “containment zone” for the city of New Rochelle, about 20 miles (32km) from downtown Manhattan.

Businesses within the epicenter of the state’s outbreak will remain open, but large gathering spaces such as community centres, schools and houses of worship will be closed. National Guards troops will be deployed to help to clean the shuttered facilities and deliver food to self-quarantining residents, who are free to leave the zone if they desire.

“You’re not containing people,” Gov Andrew Cuomo said. “You’re containing facilities.”

Travel bans

Emergency managers are focused on individual precautions, but they are also talking about the possibility of travel restrictions similar to Italy’s, says Kyle McPhee, the Director of Preparedness Programmes for Hagerty Consulting, which specialises in disaster recovery and prevention.

According to Mr McPhee, the emphasis now is on “self-imposed quarantine or voluntary quarantine”. It puts the burden “on the individual and the public to keep themselves and their neighbours and their community safe,” he says.

More at BBC News

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