Public health emergency powers laws in the US underwent a profound stress test during the COVID-19 pandemic. Designed with bioterrorism in mind, they struggled to meet the challenges of a multiyear pandemic. Public health legal powers in the US are both too limited, in that they don’t clearly permit officials to implement measures necessary to combat epidemics, and too broad, in that their accountability mechanisms fall short of public expectations. Recently, some courts and state legislatures have cut deeply into emergency powers, jeopardizing future emergency response. Instead of this curtailment of essential powers, the states and Congress should modernize emergency powers laws to balance powers and individual rights in more productive ways. In this analysis we propose reforms including meaningful legislative checks on executive power, stronger substantive standards for executive orders, mechanisms for public and legislative input, and clearer authority to issue orders affecting groups of people.