With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing about a series of travel bans, lockdowns and partial shutdowns worldwide, officials in an ever-increasing number of US states have announced mandatory “stay at home” orders to curb the spread of the virus.

A woman lying on a sofa playing with her dog
Officials in multiple US states have announced mandatory “stay at home” orders © Grace Chon/Getty Images

Last week, some areas asked citizens to "shelter in place," a phrase that has various meanings depending on the situation. In the case of dangers posed by bombings, shootings or radiological and chemical defense scenarios, it means to seek safety within the building one already occupies rather than evacuating the area or seeking a community emergency shelter. When it is implemented as a strategy for suppressing an epidemic, it means that people should stay in the safety of their homes to avoid spreading infection or becoming infected themselves.

On March 19, Californian governor Gavin Newsom made an order for people to remain in their residences unless they have a vital reason for going out, and less than five days later, other states had rushed to follow suit, including Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia. Several more states ordered nonessential businesses to close but didn’t issue full stay-at-home orders. 

Two elderly women sitting on benches practising social distancing.
Proper social distancing measures must be practised © Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Though the details vary according to state, in general, these directives mean people should only go out for healthcare reasons, or to get food, medical supplies or other essentials. Going outside for exercise or to walk the dog is permitted, as long as proper social distancing measures are practised with people staying at least six feet away from each other. Those at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should not go out at all, but people can leave their homes to care for a relative or a friend. The restrictions will remain in place until further notice.

On the whole, schools, movie theaters, gyms and recreation facilities are closed, but essential personnel – those working in healthcare, emergency response and media – can still go to work, as can those employed in grocery stores, banks and gas stations. Hardware stores, food banks and laundromats are allowed to operate; bars and restaurants are closed to customers, but they can continue providing delivery and takeout services. 

Hollywood & Highland shopping mall on Hollywood Blvd after Los Angeles ordered the closure of all non-essential services and entertainment venues
Non-essential services and entertainment venues have been closed © AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Though Newsom estimates that 25.5 million Californians may become infected with the virus, he said the order to stay at home would not be enforced by law enforcement, as he is confident that the people of California will abide by it and do the right thing. Other states took a harder line. "These are not helpful hints," New York governor Andrew Cuomo said at his press conference Friday. "These are legal provisions, they will be enforced, there will be a civil fine and mandatory closure for any business that's not in compliance."

On the West Coast, Oregon governor Kate Brown said much the same, with her office stressing that “failure to comply with the order will be considered an immediate danger to public health and subject to a Class C misdemeanor.”

Violations in Illinois could also warrant a misdemeanor charge, but governor JB Pritzker said at a press conference that they’re “calling on people to use their best judgment to follow the guidance that we’re giving them.”

“We are doing all that we can to maintain as much normalcy as possible while taking the steps that we must to protect you,” he continued. “But ultimately you can’t have a livelihood if you don’t have your life.”

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