In the wake of the once and future bioterrorism scare, the Bush administration is pushing state legislators to adopt a draconian new quarantine law that is not only bad public health policy but contains a potentially serious threat to HIVers. Drafted at the White House’s demand by the CDC, the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act permits forced vaccinations and quarantines of people exposed to infectious diseases -- for example, in a terrorist attack with the highly contagious smallpox virus -- and authorizes police to restrain residents from leaving contaminated areas. These and other measures in the law could, if implemented, move America well down the road to a public-health “police” state. Furthermore, just as AIDS advocates have long argued that mandatory testing drives people away from testing and treatment, the model quarantine law is likely to foster panic and flight, spreading deadly germs even wider.

In Massachusetts, GOP Gov. Jane Swift has introduced a version of the law that mandates not only the detention of infected people but the confiscation of their property and the seizure of hospitals. “History shows that [quarantining] is littered with violence, questionable imprisonment and mob panic,” The Boston Globe reported in a page-one investigation. “As late as the turn of the century, Boston ’virus squads’ beat and forcibly vaccinated homeless people” in a smallpox epidemic. And for those who would argue that the ends justify the means, The Globe pointed out that “little proof exists that the drastic measures worked to stop disease spread.” The proposed law “treats American citizens as if they are the enemy,” argues George Annas, MD, chair of the Boston University School of Public Health’s Health Law Department, who led 10 New England legal scholars in opposing it.

In the Bush-backed model -- versions of which are working their way through legislatures in California and elsewhere -- quarantine is authorized for “any infectious disease that can be transmitted from person to person.” That, of course, includes HIV.

In San Francisco two controversial PWA activists who protested the quarantine (among much else) have been arrested as “terrorists.” At press time, Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli were in jail on $500,000 bail each, charged with making harassing phone calls -- allegedly including a bomb threat -- to San Francisco Chronicle editors and reporters. (Both men vigorously deny making bomb threats.) The indictment accuses them of stalking, terrorist threats and conspiracy on 27 counts -- half are felonies -- carrying a potential total criminal penalty of 78 years in prison.

Petrelis is a sometimes-useful gadfly whose tactics can range from the silly to the offensive to the counterproductive [for his anti-gay collaboration with Sen. Jesse Helms, see “Sex Pistols”]; ACT UP/San Francisco’s Pasquarelli is the HIV denialist against whom restraining orders have been issued on behalf of individuals at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Project Inform and the city health department. Now, one can object to both Petrelis’ and Pasquarelli’s politics and their actions but still find what’s being done to them disturbing: Their prohibitively high bail amounts to preventive detention. Those who have no sympathy for these two might recall the case of ACT UP/Philadelphia’s Kate Sorenson, who was arrested in protests at the 2000 Republican National Convention, held on $1 million bail and tried -- and eventually acquitted -- on felony charges. Or the takeover of GlaxoSmithKline’s offices last February by New York ACT UPers whose felony charges are still pending.

The punishing of civil -- or even uncivil -- disobedience with felony charges, instead of the usual misdemeanors, constitutes an attempt to repress political dissent. And while you may find late-night obscene phone calls, as I do, repugnantly puerile, San Francisco DA Terrence Hallinan’s accusations of “terrorism” against Petrelis and Pasquarelli in the post-September 11 hysteria are political pandering to his hometown newspaper. And it makes it difficult for the duo to get a fair trial.

Public opinion polls show the country is overwhelmingly in favor of curbs on our civil liberties like those adopted by the Bush administration. In the ’80s, calls for quarantine of PWAs were commonplace. Jeffrey Klausner, MD, San Francisco’s director of Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention and Control, recently suggested to The Washington Monthly that it was time to discuss quarantine for barebackers accused of infecting multiple sex partners. No major AIDS or gay organization has yet spoken out about the threat to HIVers in the Bush-backed quarantine proposal or Klausner’s off-hand remark -- or, for that matter, the detention of two AIDS activists they revile. This is a shame. For it is by one’s willingness to oppose the mistreatment of those whose politics and actions one rejects that one’s own principles and integrity are measured.