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You’ve Been Told to 'Shelter in Place'—but What Does That Mean?

We break down the terminology for this seemingly ever-changing situation.

March 26, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.


There have, in the past few weeks, been a myriad of new terms crawling their way into our lexicon. It began with the novelty of the novel coronavirus, then social distancing waltzed in, we started to talk of curves and their flattenings, quarantines and their happenings. The implications of these terms are as in flux as the current situation—which is to say, we’re learning more about them and what they mean to us every moment, every day.

Among them is "shelter in place," a phrase that’s started to have very real effects on our daily lives. As the novel coronavirus spreads across the United States, the term is beginning to take on newfound urgency. But what exactly does it mean?

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Essentially, a shelter-in-place, or stay-at-home, order is a government issued directive that impels citizens to remain in their homes and leave only for essential tasks, such as shopping for food, picking up essential supplies, and caring for loved ones in need. Some government officials, like Governor Cuomo of New York, differentiate between "shelter in place" and "stay at home," adding that the former could cause more panic among the community (though their requirements are, in effect, the same). If you've heard either of these terms used in reference to your region, it's best to check the guidance of your local government to learn about the specifications of the order.

Shelter in place can easily be confused with two other phrases you might have heard floating around right now: quarantine and isolation. These three terms are, however, pretty different. Quarantine is a recommended state of full separation (that is, not permitting travel outside of the home at all) for people who may have been exposed to an infectious disease, but haven't yet shown symptoms. Isolation, on the other hand, is quarantine (or a full, uninterrupted separation) for those who are sick, in order to prevent them from spreading the disease to others.

Most shelter-in-place orders have been issued at state or local levels and vary place by place, with California being the first state where it's gone into full effect. Some have adopted statewide policies, while others, like Texas, have only implemented the decree in certain counties or cities. For the most part, people can leave their homes if needed, and most non-essential businesses have partially or fully closed. What “non-essential” means is up to local governments to decide, but commonly includes theaters, gyms, salons and barbershops, museums, and concert venues, to name a few. For a general list of essential business, you can look here.

The effects of the different orders have been quite impactful across the nation; according to The New York Times, as of Wednesday, Mar. 26, “196 million people in 21 states, 37 counties and 16 cities are being urged to stay home.” Now, all we can do is remain where we are and wait for the spread of the virus to slow as a result of the reduced interaction.

Have you been ordered to shelter-in-place? Or implementing your own at home quarantine? If so, check out our COVID-19 guide. And for more information about the shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, this interactive New York Times feature is a wonderful resource.

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Valerio Farris

Written by: Valerio Farris

Former staff writer at Food52. Current anchovy eater.

3 Comments

AntoniaJames March 27, 2020
Check your state and local directives, but be aware that in some places (perhaps all . . . I haven't checked) . . . bicycling is perfectly acceptable, as long as you keep your distance from others - which you'd be doing most of the time anyway, unless riding side by side. I regularly take long rides anyway, but in the past few weeks, I've been delighted to see so many more people, of all ages, out cycling here in Boulder County. ;o)
 
lisagilbert March 27, 2020
"that impedes citizens to remain" --> I think this is an autocorrect typo for "impels" :)
 
Brinda A. March 27, 2020
Thanks so much for catching that—updated!