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Novomoskovskiy medical center, where patients with suspected coronavirus are hospitalized
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Emergency powers in Moscow Amid concerns about spreading coronavirus, Sergey Sobyanin has ordered thousands of Muscovites to lock themselves at home for weeks. Here's how the city is enforcing that.

Source: Meduza
Novomoskovskiy medical center, where patients with suspected coronavirus are hospitalized
Novomoskovskiy medical center, where patients with suspected coronavirus are hospitalized
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA
This article was first published by Meduza in Russian on March 6.

On the evening of March 5, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin put the capital on high alert due to the coronavirus epidemic. A decree to this effect was published on the City Hall website. It lists requirements for citizens who have “visited territories” where coronavirus cases have been reported, including prominent European countries such as Italy, France, Germany and Spain. Among other requirements, Muscovites returning from these countries must “self-isolate” at home and not go to work. Meduza looks at whether such restrictions are legal and whether they make sense.

The mayor of Moscow put the capital on high alert. He ordered Muscovites returning from a list of countries not to leave their homes for two weeks.

On March 5, the mayor passed a decree ordering citizens to call the Moscow city hotline and provide contact details if they have travelled to countries where there are cases of coronavirus. Upon noticing symptoms, they must call a doctor to their home and self-isolate.

Requirements for people who have recently visited China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, France, Germany, and Spain are set out separately. Other countries have since been added to this list, including the United States.

The decree stipulates that those citizens are required to “self-isolate at home” for 14 days and not attend school or work, as well as “to minimize visits to public places.” Alina Chimbireva, a medical lawyer and head of the Melegal law firm told Meduza that these requirements are imposed by physical location, not by place of registration. This means they also apply to people from other cities who find themselves in Moscow. 

In addition, Moscow employers are required to measure the temperature of their employees at their workplaces and suspend those with high temperatures. Where necessary, the employer should assist employees who are isolating at home. The mayor's office can issue sick leave documentation for time off work, which can be delivered by courier.

There is no information about the introduction of such large-scale measures in other Russian cities. In St. Petersburg for example, people with flu-like symptoms are being hospitalized, but only students living in dormitories at Mechnikov University have been required to isolate. The first case of coronavirus infection recorded was an Italian student attending this university and students are still forbidden from leaving their dorms, according to the St. Petersburg website Fontanka.

Does the mayor have the authority to enforce confinement?

The decree states that Moscow authorities are acting in accordance with subparagraph B, paragraph 6 of article 4.1 of the Federal law “on the protection of population and territories from natural and man-made emergencies.” However, this stipulates that only in the event of an emergency can the authorities operate on “high-alert” mode. City Hall promised to answer Meduza’s question about the legal basis of Sobyanin’s decree, but we received no response by the time we published this story. 

In a conversation with Meduza, Chimbireva said that the mayor’s authority comes from a decree issued by Russia’s head doctor on March 2. This order instructs all regional government heads “to introduce restrictive measures promptly” and ensure “the delivery of measures aimed at preventing the spread of a new coronavirus infection, and the timely identification and isolation of persons showing signs” of having the virus. The lawyer added that freedom of movement may be restricted in accordance with the law “on the right of citizens of the Russian Federation to freedom of movement, choice of domicile and residence within the Russian Federation,” where there is a risk of spreading infectious diseases.

“Nevertheless these measures do seem excessive,” Chimbireva added.

Stanislav Seleznev, a legal analyst for the international human rights group Agora, sees things differently. He told Meduza that the state of high alert is only enforceable for government agencies and for the “state forces for emergency prevention and response.” As the head of the city, Sobyanin has the right to give mandatory instructions only to his direct subordinates — that is, to the heads of organizations and institutions that are part of the government of the city of Moscow, or state-owned and city-owned enterprises. These guidelines also apply to employees of those institutions. “There are no lawful mechanisms of coercion [for other people]. The authorities do not have the right to restrict the freedom of a healthy person or a person who does not have symptoms,” Seleznev said.

Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, later issued a separate statement in his Telegram channel, where he stressed that the legality of Sobyanin's decree raises “serious questions.”

“Mayor Sobyanin's decree not only imposes duties on citizens, but also significantly restricts their constitutional rights,” Chikov concluded. He estimated that “thousands” of Moscow residents would be affected.

How will compliance with the decree be monitored and what punishments would violations incur?

The penalties for non-compliance are not described. The mayor's office promised to answer Meduza's inquiry about the consequences of non-compliance.

Chimbireva told Meduza that failure to isolate could incur a fine under article 6.3 of the Administrative Code (“violation of the law in the area of ensuring sanitary and epidemiological welfare of the population, manifested in the violation of active sanitary rules and hygiene standards, or in failure to comply with sanitary-hygienic and anti-epidemic measures”). This incurs a warning or a fine of between 100 rubles and 500 rubles (about $4).

On March 5, Mediazona reported that Moscow authorities are using the police and video surveillance to try to stop the spread of coronavirus. The website shared two stories of Muscovites who returned from Italy and China in the last month.

Artyom (who asked Mediazona not to publish his last name) said that he flew to Moscow from Milan on the same flight as David Berov, the first Russian diagnosed with COVID-19. According to him “no one checked anything at the airport” and he went to work undisturbed for a week. On February 29, he received a call from the deputy head doctor at one of Moscow’s hospitals, who asked him whether he had been on that flight. Artem confirmed he had, and 15 minutes later an ambulance team appeared at his home. They took tests and issued an order of quarantine to last until March 8. He was instructed to stay at home for the entire period.

One day during the quarantine, Artyom took out the garbage from his apartment and the next day, a police officer came to his house and served him and his girlfriend a notice of non-compliance. The next day, the police officer returned with another law-enforcement official and they issued a report on “failure to comply with legal police orders.” For this, Artyom faces a fine of up to 500 rubles (about $6).

Mediazona notes that among the evidence that the police officers brought with them, there was a piece of paper with Artem's full name and address, as well as two pictures captioned “Area in front of entrance 4” and “03.03.2020 14:27:34 Compliance: Low (72.79 percent).” One is a photo of Artyom from a foreign passport, and the second was apparently taken by the surveillance camera of an intercom, connected to a facial recognition system. Sobyanin had earlier announced that facial recognition systems would be used in the fight against the spread of infection.

The next day, the head of the Moscow health department, Alexey Khripun, said on radio station Ekho Moskvy that authorities “do not snoop through intercoms” to track “self-isolated” individuals. “But we do have ways of noticing breaches. From the simple absence of the patient when doctors visit — when they arrive they call, they reach out to carry out the type of medical supervision that is necessary in cases of home quarantine or home isolation. All the way to other special technical means that enable us to keep track,” he said.

Khripun added that potential patients will also be searched by police officers during raids “in places of residence, in places of work, in the subway.”

Are these measures reasonable?

Generally speaking, they are. Meduza has already published several pieces on recommended precautions.

On average, it takes five days from infection to symptoms, but it can be as long as 14. Therefore, people arriving from places where coronavirus is widespread are advised to minimize contact with other people. If they are not quarantined in special facilities, it is strongly recommended that they stay at home.

If you have flu-like symptoms, please contact your doctor.

Text by Pavel Merzlikin

Translation by Madeleine Nosworthy