The Stafford Act Emergency Declaration for COVID-19

This Insight provides an overview of emergency declarations under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Reliefand Emergency Assistance Act (hereinafter the Stafford Act, P.L. 93-288, as amended; 42 U.S.C. §§5121et seq.). It describes the forms of assistance authorized pursuant to President Donald J. Trump’s March13, 2020 emergency declaration under the Stafford Act in all U.S. states and territories in response to thecoronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

Stafford Act Emergency Declaration for COVID-19 The President’s emergency declaration, pursuant to Stafford Act Section 501(b), authorized assistance forCOVID-19 response efforts for all U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia. There was no precedent for a nationwide Stafford Act declaration. Generally, the governor of an affected state/territory or tribal chief executive of an affected Indian tribal government requests the President approve a Stafford Act declaration for specific jurisdictions and types of needed assistance, and the President makes the determination in consultation with FEMA.

It is rare for the President to declare an emergency without governor or chief executive’s request; examples include the explosion at the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Like the COVID-19 emergency declaration,these declarations were authorized under Stafford Act Section 501(b), for certain emergencies involving federal primary responsibility (42 U.S.C. §5191).

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) remains the lead agency for the federal response to COVID-19 (see also 42 U.S.C. 300hh(a)). Assistance authorized through the Stafford Act is to supplement and support the efforts of HHS and state, territorial, tribal, and local governments. The Stafford Act does not supplant or supersede other federal authorities, including public health authorities exercised by the Secretary of HHS.

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