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March 07, 2022

Health Law and Ethics

COVID Rules (02/2022)

Q: What will happen to me if I break COVID rules? Michelle from California

A: This is a great question because the answer is not always clear. Ultimately, your COVID rules are created by your state and, sometimes, your specific school board. In California, for example, the California Department of Health has laid out guidance and rules for you to follow. But those rules do not expressly mention what happens should a rule be broken.

Therefore, it is likely that the discretion would lie within your school board or even, possibly, your specific school. To that end, the answer to your question is still somewhat of an unknown. Colleges and universities, for example, have suspended students/kicked them out of campus or out of specific programs. There are pending legal actions surrounding those punishments that add uncertainty to exactly what a school can/cannot do to enforce COVID rules. As with any school disciplinary matter, the starting point is always to look at your school district’s rules to see what penalty a rule violation might carry. For example, defying a teacher’s instruction to wear a mask or socially distance – in a state or district where such precautions are required – might be considered “insubordination” punishable under the district’s disciplinary code.

Whether a student has any constitutional basis for challenging a penalty – for instance, arguing that vaccination or masking violates individual liberties – depends on whether the school is public or private. Constitutional rights generally do not apply in private schools, which are not considered to be government agencies. So they have a much freer hand to impose and enforce rules as they see fit.

The practical answer is that, should you break a COVID rule, the consequence would likely be up to the discretion of a school administrator. This period of time has been, in many ways, defined by uncertainty and a lack of a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions. This is no different. Given the uncertainty around exactly what consequences await a failure to adhere to your school’s COVID rules, it is best to follow them whenever possible.

COVID Rules and the Police (02/2022)

Q: What can a police officer actually do if they catch you breaking COVID protocol? Jacob from California

A: Much like in the school setting, a police officer’s ability to enforce COVID protocols stems from decisions made at the state, city, and police district-level. In looking at the website for COVID-based citations in the state of California, police officers and inspectors appear to be focusing on companies to ensure compliance on an institutional level. Police do not have the authority to arrest people unless a law carries a criminal penalty. Simply walking around in public without wearing a mask, or refusing to get a vaccine, is not classified as a crime. However, it may be considered “criminal trespassing” to refuse to leave a business after being told by the management to leave, so that is a situation where police might become involved.

So where does that leave you on an individual level? To the extent that your locale has state-wide or city-wide rules, the police are able to enforce them just as they would any other rule. Therefore, it probably comes down to the discretion of the police officer that you are dealing with. There are a number of factors that could come into play here, such as: the manner in which you are breaking protocols, the surrounding circumstances, the number of times that the police officer has caught you breaking protocol, and the local guidelines for enforcing such COVID-based policies. From a best-practices perspective, given the uncertainty around this whole COVID period and the ever-changing federal guidance and local rules, make your best effort to follow the COVID protocols.