While the constitution ensures drivers a “right to travel” — meaning the right to cross state borders — states also have the right to exercise their police power to protect themselves from disease, said Gillian Metzger, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia Law School. Therefore, even state measures that target interstate travel may be constitutional — so long as no better less restrictive alternative exists.
“In the midst of a pandemic, state governments have very strong power to make restrictions in the name of public health,” Professor Metzger said, adding: “As we know more about the virus, as we do more testing, the kinds of restrictions that will be allowed will change.”
One exception: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue the state of Rhode Island when the governor there considered stopping cars with New York license plates at the border March 28. Soon after, Gov. Gina Raimondo changed tactics, signing an executive order instructing anyone — not just New Yorkers but even other Rhode Islanders — coming from out of state to quarantine at home for 14 days.
Data suggests that a restriction of movement helps to slow the rate of infection. But the government — whether local, state or federal — likely cannot keep all of the 273.6 million vehicles registered in the United States off the road.
“Much of the control of the outbreak in the U.S. will depend on individuals in the U.S. making good choices,” said Dr. Henry Wu, director of Emory TravelWell Center in Atlanta, which provides health services for international travelers.
Noting the asymmetric nature of the disease — different parts of the country experiencing different stages of the pandemic — he said, “increased travel between different regions of the country would increase the likelihood that it would spread.”
Even AAA suggests that you “talk to your health care provider” before you go.
Some of the country’s most famous drives, like California’s Route 1, remain open. But authorities along some roadways — like the Blue Ridge Parkway — are trying to discourage its use. Drivers there can still take in the scenic views of the Shenandoah Valley, but will find that restrooms, visitor centers and campgrounds along the route are closed.