The White House set a legal precedent by declaring a major disaster in New York state from the novel coronavirus, a move that could open up new avenues of federal and potentially military assistance for states.
Trump on March 13 declared the pandemic a “national emergency,” a designation that provides significant funding for states but includes more restrictions than what’s allowed for recovery efforts when a natural disaster strikes. To receive a disaster declaration under the act, a governor must request categories of assistance from the president.
The New York emergency declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tap into the Disaster Relief Fund, which had a balance of $42.6 billion at the end of February. The declaration opened up this fund for emergency protective measures to all areas of the state affected by Covid-19.
“This is the first time a major disaster has been declared for an infectious disease, setting new legal precedent about the interpretation of a natural catastrophe,” Alexandra Phelan, faculty research instructor at Georgetown University Medical Center, said by email. “Given this, other states affected by Covid-19 may seek similar declarations from the president to receive direct federal funding, which FEMA would assess before advising the president.”
In a blog post earlier this week, Mark Nevitt, professor of leadership and law at the U.S. Naval Academy, discussed the Stafford Act and the implications of declaring a major disaster.
“Whether the coronavirus qualifies as a major disaster is significant,” Nevitt said.
The president can do more in response to a major disaster, such as distributing medicine and food, providing emergency medical care, and arranging temporary facilities, Nevitt said. A major disaster declaration also may allow the government to tap into additional military resources, such as emergency work essential for the preservation of life and property, he said.