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  • Edvard Pettersson and Laurel Brubaker Calkins

Legal Battle to Reach Vacation Homes Kicks Off Amid Travel Bans

Bloomberg Politics

Michigan lawsuit contends ban on trips won’t slow virus spread

Where travel to a second home once required braving holiday weekend traffic, it might now require a lawsuit.

In Michigan, a lawyer and a landscaping business owner filed a joint court challenge Wednesday to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s ban on travel to second homes, saying that keeping them from their cottages does nothing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The measures “lack any rational basis, are arbitrary, capricious and vague,” and “have no real or substantial relationship” to protecting public health, according to the complaint.

Michigan isn’t the only place seeking to clamp down on travel by residents who own multiple properties, part of an effort to limit the spread of the disease from big cities to smaller communities. Lawsuits have been threatened elsewhere, pitting the owners of often expensive real estate against residents who live in a vacation community year-round. Officials say local hospitals often aren’t equipped to handle a coronavirus outbreak brought by wealthy refugees from big cities.

Global efforts to discourage such travel have met with varying levels of adherence. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg last month ordered people holed up in rural cabins to return to their regular homes in the cities or face a fine of 20,000 crowns ($1,900) or 15 days in jail. Some officials in idyllic havens around New York City -- including the Hamptons and Hudson Valley -- have openly called for non-residents to stay away.

Political Peril

But staying at home has proven difficult even for some who deliver those recommendations. Scotland’s chief medical officer, who repeatedly urged her countrymen to stay in their homes, resigned earlier this month after news reports surfaced that she had visited her seaside vacation retreat. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was blasted in the media for spending Easter weekend with his family in Quebec.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last week threatened to sue officials in Gunnison County, Colorado -- home to the Crested Butte ski resort -- after they threatened to evict residents who don’t live there year-round from their Rocky Mountain vacation homes.

“The banishment of nonresident Texas homeowners is entirely unconstitutional and unacceptable,” Paxton wrote in a April 9 letter to the county, which is located more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) from the Texas border. “To unlawfully prevent Texans from inhabiting or enjoying property that they own, regardless of its location within the U.S., is a blatant violation of our Constitution.”

Gunnison County backed down, but not completely. It now requires owners of second homes who weren’t already in the area since late March to apply for permission to remain.

Mammoth Lakes

First responders in Mono County, California, home to the Mammoth Lakes resort area, wrote an open letter urging those with vacation homes not to visit and risk overtaxing the county hospital’s two ICU beds.

“States have broad power to impose quarantines to protect public health,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. “Courts will defer to the government, but the deference is not unlimited.”

In Michigan, where Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order and banned residents from traveling to second homes within the state, Kimberly Beemer, a lawyer who lives in Saginaw, called her cottage in Charlevoix County a “private retreat from the daily grind of her law practice,” according to her complaint.

She and another plaintiff, Paul Cavanaugh, claim in their lawsuit that Whitmer’s restrictions undermine their “fundamental” liberty and violate their rights to due process and equal protection. A third plaintiff, Robert Muise, claims Whitmer’s order violates his First Amendment rights by blocking him from associating with family members.

Representatives of the Michigan governor declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Freedom Law Center, a self-described Judeo-Christian law firm that “fights for faith and freedom.”

The arguments in favor of reaching the vacation retreats are unlikely to sway a judge, said David Super, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

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