The Slatest

What’s the Difference Between “Sheltering in Place” and What We’re Doing Now?

An empty street. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the distance.
San Francisco on Tuesday, the first day of the city’s shelter-in-place order.
Josh Edelson/Getty Images

On Monday, San Francisco and five nearby counties announced they would order 6.7 million Bay Area residents to “shelter in place.” On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said New Yorkers should prepare for a similar order, with a decision to be made in the next 48 hours. Other areas of the country could consider similar restrictions as officials attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But what exactly does “sheltering in place” entail? And how is it different than the self-isolation that millions of Americans are already doing?

It’s just a bit more severe. Americans are already encouraged to practice “social distancing,” staying 6 feet apart from other people. Bars, restaurants, and most other public gathering places have been shut down in New York City and many cities and states across the country. The White House has recommended no gatherings of more than 10 people for at least the next 15 days. Those steps make for the foundation of the shelter-in-place order, which tightens the restrictions to basically all socializing and activities that can’t be done in the home—and no gatherings at all, no matter how small.

But it probably won’t mean you can’t go outside. Judging by how the Bay Area has implemented its version of shelter in place, you’ll still be allowed to go on runs or walk your dog, as long as you stay 6 feet apart from everyone else when doing so. But any other recreational activities, including just going over to a friend’s apartment, are prohibited outside the home. Under a shelter-in-place order, you can only go to someone else’s home if they are in need of caretaking.

Essential businesses are still allowed to remain open. That includes banks, pharmacies, veterinarians, hardware stores, gas stations, convenience stores, takeout and delivery restaurants, laundromats, and grocery stores. (People should not stock up on groceries, as they’ll be allowed to shop at their regular pace.)

People with essential jobs—workers in one of the essential businesses mentioned above or employees of the local government, police department, post office, hospitals, jails, courts, sanitary departments, utility companies, etc.—will still be able to travel to get to work. Public transportation will remain open, but again, people should only use it for essential reasons.

A shelter-in-place order sounds alarming, but it’s not a full quarantine. It is still mandatory, though; San Francisco has declared it a misdemeanor to not follow the order. According to de Blasio, New York police and fire departments would enforce a shelter-in-place order. But a federal quarantine is a more serious matter that can even carry jail time, and de Blasio made it clear that he did not think New York would ever be facing such an extreme measure.

A shelter-in-place order also wouldn’t be considered a lockdown, like the one implemented by Italy, which bans people from leaving their homes at all without permission. Instead, both San Francisco and New York have emphasized that the order would be implemented with compassion, and that it was meant to be more of a guidance for residents’ new way of life and not a measure to lead to harsh crackdowns.