In pandemic, rumors of martial law fly despite reassurances

Wednesday, March 25, 2020
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Members of The Ohio National Guard assist in repackaging emergency food boxes for food distribution at the Cleveland Food Bank in Cleveland.

NEW YORK (AP) — Millions of Americans have been ordered to stay home. Businesses and schools are shuttered. And National Guard units have been activated in more than half the states.

Yet despite what you may have read in a text message or on social media, there are currently no plans for a national quarantine, let alone martial law. Those National Guard units? They’re busy distributing food and medical supplies.

Rumors of a military-enforced national lockdown have been debunked repeatedly by state and federal authorities who say their recurrence shows just how persistent false claims can be during an emergency, and why it’s vital to find reliable sources of information.

“I hear unfounded rumors about National Guard troops supporting a nationwide quarantine,” said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “Let me be clear: There has been no such discussion.” 



More than 4,000 National Guard reservists have been deployed in at least 31 states to help with the response to the virus, according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Their missions vary, though primarily they’re being used to distribute food and supplies.

Unlike other military service members, National Guard members are under the dual control of their states’ governor and the president. While they can be deployed overseas in combat zones, they also regularly respond to domestic emergencies, such as wildfires or hurricanes.

Authorities say the coronavirus pandemic is similar to those kinds of crises, though on a much larger scale.

“With COVID-19, it’s like we have 54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory and the District of Columbia,” Lengyel said.



As more COVID-19 tests become available, guardsmen in some states are helping at testing sites. That’s the case in Rhode Island and New York, where Guard members are expected to help with traffic control and administrative tasks at the state’s first drive-thru testing site.

Meanwhile, members of the Guard and another military agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, are working to  transform the mammoth Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a 1,000-bed hospital. 

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster has asked the Guard to draw up plans for the construction of temporary medical facilities adjacent to hospitals, should they be needed.

In Louisiana, the Guard is providing security at areas where people were in isolation or quarantine. In Maryland, they helped bring cruise ship passengers home from quarantine at a Georgia air base.

For most, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. But for some older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.



Anxiety about the outbreak and the escalating response to it have led to confusion — and misinformation — about the Guard’s role.

As government officials began activating the National Guard, text messages and posts suggesting that the guardsmen would enforce martial law began being widely shared.

The posts, often claiming to be from a “friend of a friend,” advised that within 48 to 72 hours the president would order a two-week mandatory quarantine and that the National Guard would mobilize to administer it.

These messages all sought to create a sense of urgency, which can lead people to panic-buy or make rapid travel decisions, said Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Alliance for Securing Democracy.

“It shows the power of conspiracies when people are scared,” he said. “It’s creating havoc.”

While there are no announced plans yet to use National Guard members to enforce stay-home directives, California Gov. Gavin Newsom did float the possibility for his state when he called up 500 guardsmen to help distribute food.