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Chicago uses social media to track tourists violating quarantine; city dismisses 'Big Brother' comparisons

Some out-of-towners are risking fines of up to $7,000 to visit Chicago and grab some deep-dish pizza

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

If you're visiting Chicago this summer, you may want to hold off on posting your sightseeing photos. Chicago health officials admitted that they would use social media to track down tourists who have violated the city's quarantine order and use the evidence to levy fines on the offenders.

On July 6, an emergency travel order took effect that stated that any visitors or any Chicagoans returning home from states experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases must quarantine for a 14-day period upon arrival. The criteria for mandatory quarantine is any state that has a coronavirus case rate higher than 15 new cases per 100,000 resident population, per day, over a seven-day rolling average.

The order, which was issued by Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady, M.D., stated that anyone who violated the mandatory quarantine is subject to a fine from $100 to $500 per day, and up to a total amount of $7,000.

As of Friday, the 22 states included in the emergency travel order include Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. Visitors from Puerto Rico will also be ordered to lock down for 14 days.

At a news conference Tuesday, Arwady revealed that health officials would use social media postings as evidence to issue fines against visitors violating quarantine.

"Where we already have a concern, it's one of the easiest ways to identify people who are not just breaking the travel order but flaunting it publicly," Arwady said, according to USA Today.

Arwady presented a hypothetical example of a person posting photos on social media from Florida one day, and then sharing photos from Chicago a few days later.

"And they're clearly out in Chicago, not just back but at a restaurant or at The Bean or whatever it may be, and they're posting about it," she said. "That's an example of where we could use that as proof to issue citations.

"One of the easiest ways to sort of get enough proof that there was the potential of a violated quarantine order without me having to send out an inspector or do any sort of more aggressive follow-up to collect that is to look at social media," she said, NBC Chicago reported.

Arwady dismissed comparisons to Chicago being "Big Brother," the authoritarian fictional character in George Orwell's dystopian novel "1984."

"I don't want to like overemphasize that we're somehow Big Brother in monitoring people's social accounts — we're absolutely not doing that," Arwady said. "But where we already have a concern, it's one of the easiest ways to identify people who are not just breaking the travel order but flaunting it publicly."

She also claimed that the practice of snooping through social media posts will only be used on a case-by-case basis.

"We do not have somebody dedicated to sitting and watching social media feeds," she clarified. "We're absolutely not doing that."

The Chicago Department of Public Health Department has posted notices of the mandatory quarantine at its two major airports, highway signs, hotels, and at vacation rental companies.

"I think it's actually been extremely effective," Arwady said. "We have gotten calls about this travel order, questions at a level that has suggested that people are paying serious attention."

However, some tourists visiting the Windy City openly admit that they will defy the quarantine order. Some said they had no problem violating the order so that they could get their hands on some famed deep-dish pizza from Lou Malnati's, a popular restaurant with tourists.

"With work and everything, [a] two week quarantine just really isn't an option," an anonymous tourist visiting Chicago from Kansas told WBEZ. "We had this trip planned long before all of this stuff, so we weren't going to back out of it just because of an order that's unenforceable."

"I didn't know anything about [the quarantine order], or that Wisconsin was a banned state," a tourist from Wisconsin said. "I'm kind of surprised, but I don't know how they would enforce it, so it doesn't really mean that much to me."

Hawaii has implemented a similar 14-day mandatory quarantine order, and health officials from the Aloha state have also utilized social media posts to track down violators of the lockdown order.

As of last month, nearly 200 people have been arrested in Hawaii during the coronavirus pandemic for violating the state's mandatory quarantine order, including a tourist from New York who was caught after posting beach photos on his Instagram.

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