PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Saturday threatened to sue Rhode Island if it doesn’t end a new controversial policy of tracking down New Yorkers traveling to Rhode Island.
Cuomo’s remarks, made during an interview on CNN, come a day after aggressive new orders were issued by Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has directed the R.I. National Guard to go house-to-house in seaside communities looking for New Yorkers, collecting their information and telling them to quarantine in place for two weeks.
Raimondo has also ordered R.I. State Police to stop drivers with New York licenses plates coming into Rhode Island on the interstate. If Rhode Island is the drivers’ final destination, they are expected to submit personal information about where they’re going to stay, so the state can trace them and ensure they self-quarantine for the required two weeks.
“We’re talking to Rhode Island now,” Cuomo said. “If they don’t roll back that policy, I’m going to sue Rhode Island, because that’s clearly unconstitutional.” He called it “a reactionary policy.”
“We’ll work it out amicably I’m sure,” he added. “We have conversations going back and forth.”
However, as the interview went on it appeared Cuomo had been misinformed about Rhode Island’s actual policy. At one point he claimed Rhode Island was “not letting anyone in until they take a test to see whether or not they have the virus,” which is not the state’s policy.
“Do you know how many people come from Rhode Island to New York to do business?” he said.
The controversial orders have made national news, most notably after Bloomberg News ran a headline that read: “Rhode Island Police to Hunt Down New Yorkers Seeking Refuge.”
While Raimondo said Saturday she doesn’t like the optics, she rationalized the aggressive measures by pointing out that the New York City metro area accounts for more than half of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States.
“Of course I’m worried about that,” Raimondo said of how the policy looks. “But I’m more worried about — and focused on — outcomes.”
In response to Cuomo’s remarks, Raimonodo spokesperson Josh Block pointed out that the governor had expanded her order to mandate that all out-of-staters — not just New Yorkers — must self-quarantine after arriving in Rhode Island.
“As other cities and states across the country are now seeing a spike in cases, she signed a new executive order earlier today expanding the quarantine requirement to all out-of-state travelers,” Block wrote in an email.
The headbutting between two Democratic governors marks another unusual twist in the ongoing public health crisis that’s killed more than 30,000 people globally.
Raimondo’s order targeting New Yorkers has also been met with push back from other quarters, including the American Civil Liberties Union’s Rhode Island chapter, which issued a statement Thursday claiming the action violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“The governor has taken many steps to address this crisis that carefully balance public health needs and the civil rights of citizens. This one does not,” said ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown. “We urge her not to follow through with such an ill-advised and unconstitutional plan.”
The governor rebuffed that on Friday, pointing out that laws change during a state of emergency, and added that she’s receiving federal guidance from the Trump administration and legal advice from lawyers as she makes these decisions.
“I have no good options in front of me,” Raimondo said. “I’m out of easy decisions. I pick between bad option A and bad option B.”
Anthony Michael Kreis, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, wrote Friday on the Harvard Law Review website that Raimondo’s order and similar measures taken by governors elsewhere would likely be upheld in court for now.
“Some of these actions will inevitably raise honest concerns about civil liberties, and Americans should endeavor to debate the wisdom of government policy even amid a crisis to hold government actors accountable and protect constitutional values,” he wrote. “However, the simple reality is this: federal courts will not enjoin temporary measures that are facially calculated to save lives.”
By Saturday afternoon, Raimondo had company: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had announced he would set up checkpoints on I-95 to stop vehicles with New York plates, register the passengers and tell them to self-quarantine, according to CBS Miami.
Update (March 29, 2 p.m.): Raimondo’s new executive order issued Saturday evening revoked the previous New York-focused executive order and expanded the policy of self-quarantining to all travelers entering Rhode Island for non-work reasons from other states.
Cuomo took credit for the change of policy on national television Sunday morning, and suggested on Twitter that “Rhode Island will no longer be stopping New Yorkers at their border.”
However, R.I. State Police Col. James Manni said Sunday that the new policy would be to require all passenger vehicles with out-of-state plates entering Rhode Island at its southern border to stop at checkpoints — dubbed “information centers” — to tell National Guard members where they are headed and share their contact information. If they don’t stop, the state police will pull them over and direct them, he said.
Raimondo responded to Cuomo directly in her daily coronavirus briefing Sunday:
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook