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I noticed that a lot of countries introducing quarantines and other measures to fight COVID-19 also included a ban on people gathering. I am wondering, how can it be enforced?

When a government wants to stop people protests and similar actions the ban can be easily enforced, because protesters must put themselves in evidence otherwise their protest would have no purpose. But in the case of an epidemic the ban should prevent also people gathering in a discreet manner in a backstreet or a public garden. No country, not even the authoritarian ones have enough policemen to monitor every single corner.

Furthermore if people violate the ban and refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do? Put them in a crowded prison? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose?

Last detail if there are limits in the way a ban can be enforced. How effective can a ban be at preventing public gatherings?

Edit:

I would like to point out something that none of the answers considers. When a government gives an order, or issues a prohibition, then they have to enforce it, it is also a strong commitment for the state itself. This means devoting a large portion of the police force to it while they could have been employed for other tasks. Furthermore the stronger the prohibition the higher the chance that some people may eventually challenge it and lead to confrontations with the police forces.

Had there been just a ban on public events plus a recommendation to people not to gather in big number, without such a strong commitment, what would have been the difference in effectiveness and pressure put on the police force and other state resources?

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    The effect of public gatherings on the spread of diseases is a question about epidemiology, not politics. It can therefore be answered much more competently by our experts on medicalsciences.stackexchange.com. However, the enforceability of such measures is a political question. I edited your question to only focus on those aspects which are relevant for Politics Stack Exchange. – Philipp Mar 18 at 12:02
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    Please stop adding additional questions which can only be answered by medical professionals. Politics Stack Exchange is a website for politics and political processes. We can not handle questions about medicine. That's the job of Medical Sciences Stack Exchange. If you have any questions about the effectiveness of disease prevention measures, you can ask them there. – Philipp Mar 18 at 12:31
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    @FluidCode it is somewhat obvious that multiple people have issues with your questions... instead of figuratively stamping your feet and insisting no, no, it's fine as I asked... why not attempt to reword it yourself? – CGCampbell Mar 18 at 12:44
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    @FluidCode Collaborative editing of questions is part of the Stack Exchange process. It wasn't clear from your original phrasing that you actually wanted to know about the effect on gatherings, not the effect on disease prevention. I now tried to come up with another phrasing we hopefully can agree on. – Philipp Mar 18 at 12:44
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    I don't understand the new passages following "Edit". In the sense that if a ban was ignored and police officers overwhelmed, of course and obviously the ban wouldn't be effective. The ban is effective (to whatever extent) while most abide by it and while police can handle those people who don't abide by it. It can be enforced while the people who refuse to abide by it are relatively few. – Lag Mar 20 at 15:50
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I am wondering, how can it be enforced?

By the authorities, wielding the law and their monopoly on the use of force. I think society, the mainstream media and social media will also create social pressure and consequences.

Obviously the effectiveness of the ban depends on the proportion of people abiding by it. That a minority will inevitably flout the ban does not mean the ban is wholly useless.

Furthermore if people violate the ban and refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do? Put them in a crowded prison?

Yes, ban violators might be imprisoned.

https://english.elpais.com/spanish_news/2020-03-15/members-of-the-spanish-public-face-fines-or-even-prison-if-they-disobey-lockdown-rules.html

Wouldn't that defeat the purpose?

If the person is not infected, the prisoners are no worse off. If the person is infected, perhaps he or she can be put in solitary confinement or a repurposed toilet paper warehouse. Whether the person is infected or not infected, society is better off.

There is no country on the planet that can cope with large proportions of their populations being hospitalised (particularly if they need intensive care or mechanical ventilation), which is one of the things that such a ban is intended to reduce the risk of.

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    Explanatory note for future readers: as of now, people are panic-buying toilet paper after a rumour spread that all the toilet paper factories would shut down due to COVID-19, and now supermarkets are basically completely out of toilet paper. – user253751 Mar 18 at 14:12
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    @user253751: the issue with just in time supply chaining that the discounters use, there aren't really any [dedicated] toilet paper warehouses... – Fizz Mar 18 at 15:06
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Ultimately, this seem to be a question why people obey the law which might be marginally on-topic here, but is better asked on psychology SE. Given the "special pleading" for the epidemic/pandemic circumstances in the question, I'm not sure there can be a good factual answer to this, until some time has passed and some data gathered.

But perhaps the gathering bans from the Spanish influenza outbreak being reported as effective in the mainstream media, and the WHO's conclusion/suggestion that social distancing is effective does persuade some (although obviously not the question asker.) I've googled a bit to see if there any polls on whether people approve of mass gathering bans; I only found one for the US (where the outbreak isn't very severe). There is a somewhat related multi-country poll conducted by Ipsos, on a fairly related question though:

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And for those who are fined, there are ways for the governments to "get their money", e.g. via wage garnishment, property confiscation, etc. short of throwing people in prison, although the details depend on the country, so I'm not going to try and discuss that further here. It's not like most people expect to die next month from covid, so they could just ignore any [longer term] financial penalties altogether...

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First, a subtle point... Laws and policies are not meant to be 'enforced' on a broad scale. Laws and policies are a recognition that there is a common interest that most people understand and a few do not; when the rules are put in place, most people obey them because that's what they would normally do anyway, as a matter of conscience. The rule only needs to be 'enforced' for those few who lack that social conscience which would let them see the value of the rule.

Occasionally a bad rule will be passed — meaning a rule that a large segment of society finds illegitimate or reprehensible — but even in that case rules are not enforced broadly. Instead, such rules are enforced brutally, with the intention of developing a level of fear and paranoia that will coerce people to obey the rule against their conscience. Dictatorial regimes tend to lean in that direction.

The point is, if people decide to ignore a rule en masse, there is no possibility of enforcing it, except in futile strikes here and there. See: Prohibition in the US.

The Covid-19 bans on public gatherings are largely viewed as necessary by the public at large in most nations, and so most citizens are likely to cooperate with the ban, at least for the short term. This may change if the ban drags out and people begin to worry about feeding their families or keeping their homes due to financial concerns. For those citizens who don't see the reasonability of social-distancing, governments have various options. If they have passed laws to that effect they can fine or jail citizens to discourage the behavior. If they have not passed such laws, they still have social and economic options: sending officers to order groups to disperse, threatening to pull commercial licenses from businesses that host such gatherings, using local ordinances like noise violations or curfew restrictions to minimize private gatherings in homes.

So long as the number of those who respect the ban is large, governments always have enforcement options for the small remainder. But this kind of enforcement is more in the line of social pressure than real punishment: the government singles out violators and subjects them to public disapproval as much as legal penalties, and that broad disapproval does more to quell violations than any legal or financial threat. But if violations become so widespread that individual violators cannot be 'singled out' as deviant, then the rule become effectively moot, and government must either turn to draconian enforcement, or change its position entirely.

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  • The sentence "most people obey them because that's what they would normally do anyway" is debatable. AFAIK most people obey the laws because they fear the chaos that would result if everybody flouted them. However it holds until people really believe so. Where I live there are a lot of absurd laws and bureaucratic regulations that weakened people trust in the laws and the result is that also even the good laws are often flouted. – FluidCode Mar 20 at 16:57
  • @FluidCode: I see your point. I was trying to get across the idea that laws don't need to be enforced for the most part because people see it as an ethical responsibility, but I guess I could have said that better. I was trying to avoid invoking 'fear' because (as I note) inducing fear is a different approach to law, often used by oppressive regimes. But... – Ted Wrigley Mar 20 at 17:15
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I noticed that a lot of countries introducing quarantines and other measures to fight COVID-19 also included a ban on people gathering. I am wondering, how can it be enforced?

In normal situations, this would be hard to enforce. In this pandemic situation, however, a lot of things have changed.

The most important change is in one's own mindset. Many people will be aware of the gravity of the situation, mostly from seeing the situation abroad. For many Europeans, it started by seeing scenes from China, then South Korea, and eventually it hit closer to home in Italy. At the same time, the virus has gained ground in a number of states in the US. Combine that with the observation that the disease affects the elderly particularly hard and the fact that many people have elderly loved ones, many people can imagine how the disease may affect them. This means many people will be more willing to comply with measures they'd normally find outrages.

Another change comes from the top down. It starts with businesses that can move their operations to employees' homes, either to ensure their operations are less affected if an employee falls ill or because of recommendations by the government. That means it gets a little bit less busy on the roads, in public transport and in shops. Eventually, other businesses follow suit because they have less work, possibly because of problems in the supply line or lack of demand (e.g. travel-related businesses, non-essential shops, etc.).

Combine the two and daily life shifts from public places to people's homes quite a bit already. People have less reason to go out (they work from home, they are otherwise not needed at work, leisure activities one might normally go to are suspended, etc.).

Finally, the step to imposing more restrictive and compulsory isolation measures is much smaller than it would normally be. There will be much fewer people who go out to break these restrictive measures and there may be some social control in busier places as well.

When a government wants to stop people protests and similar actions the ban can be easily enforced, because protesters must put themselves in evidence otherwise their protest would have no purpose. But in the case of an epidemic the ban should prevent also people gathering in a discreet manner in a backstreet or a public garden. No country, not even the authoritarian ones have enough policemen to monitor every single corner.

Furthermore if people violate the ban and refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do? Put them in a crowded prison? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose?

Enforcement can be tricky. You're right that not everyone can be controlled, but in the most troublesome situation they can be. Of course, one or a few people together is less of a problem that larger crowds. Larger crowds are often related to some event or business and that gathering could be disbanded. There could also be roads checks to prevent people without valid reasons from travelling longer distances.

So, it will not prevent a few people deciding to meet together in their own home, but it may prevent larger gatherings, especially in public places.

Last detail if there are limits in the way a ban can be enforced. How effective can a ban be at preventing public gatherings?

They can be very effective because for the reasons named it will prevent most people from going out unnecessarily when they normally would. It all comes down to leadership and getting citizens to see why it's needed so they'll comply willingly.

If this were done in Europe when the first cases were reported in China then this would probably backfire. Now that the public mindset in many places has evolved to understand imminent implications, something that will have affect very soon and close to home (as opposed to something that might happen in the future, somewhere), it will probably work as a social distancing tool.

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Just answering this part

Furthermore if people violate the ban and refuse to pay the fine, what are they going to do? Put them in a crowded prison? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose?

Depends on the country. In China, some types of breaking the quarantine result in execution. That's not a joke.

In some other countries (e.g. South Korea, Singapore) you may be charged with manslaughter, criminal neglect, public endangerment and similar crimes. Even if you don't go to prison right now (you probably still will, as you've shown you are more dangerous to the society outside of it), when it's all over in a couple years, you absolutely will go to prison for a long time.

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