What Does Shelter In Place Mean?

Updated: March 31, 2020
In this Article

    The coronavirus pandemic created conditions where any gathering of people could present a serious risk of spreading the virus.

    Nationally, state governors and the federal government have taken steps to reduce the spread of cases; those steps include orders such as “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders. There are a large number of such orders that were scheduled to begin on March 25, affecting roughly half the nation’s residents.

    What are these orders, who do they affect, and why?

    The Contemporary Definition Of Shelter In Place

    The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health And Safety defines “Shelter in place” as follows:

    “‘Shelter-in-place’” means selecting an interior room or rooms within your facility, or ones with no or few windows, and taking refuge there. In many cases, local authorities will issue advice to shelter-in-place via TV or radio.”

    This is not what we are discussing here–we reference it because when searching for information about procedures to shelter in place, advice like this comes up prominently in the early results.

    You could be forgiven for believing that a shelter in place order indicates an immediate threat to you personally, based on some of the search results you’ll find on this topic including one in the top three results for one Google query from Yale, which includes this:

    “Shelter in place means finding a safe location indoors and staying there until you are given an ‘all clear’ or told to evacuate. You may be asked to shelter in place because of an active shooter; tornado; or chemical, radiological, or other hazard.”

    Shelter In Place Orders During The Coronavirus Outbreak

    A shelter-in-place order or stay at home order may have meant different things in different times, but for the 21st century and coronavirus response in particular, it generally means:

    • No large gatherings or non-essential travel
    • Social distancing (six feet away or better) required
    • Non-essential businesses may be ordered closed for dine-in or stay-in services
    • Reduced in-person employment (permitted generally only for essential services)
    • No non-essential business operations OR restricted operations where applicable
    • Travel may be restricted to medical needs, buying groceries, and exercise (not in groups)

    Not all states or jurisdictions have the same shelter in place rules; in Chicago, for example, you can be fined up to $500 for violating stay-at-home orders. Notorious social media posts of Chicagoans flocking to exercise trails and Lakeshore destinations have angered many who view such gatherings as a willful disregard for public safety.

    But in other areas, stay-at-home may be more voluntary than it is in places like California, New York, Illinois, and Louisiana. Some areas such as North Dakota only report double-digit cases at press time compared to the thousands afflicted on the East and West coasts.

    Shelter-in-place for people in (currently) lower-impact areas still means social distancing (for best results), selective travel and exposure to crowds.

    But small-town America may not feel the need for the more strict measures needed in New York City and elsewhere. It may take many weeks for smaller and more isolated communities to see the effects of COVID-19 and coronavirus transmission.

    How Enforceable Are Shelter In Place Orders?

    Shelter In Place orders issued at the state level by the Governor or Department of Public Health are legally enforceable depending on the nature or instructions contained in those rules, the severity of the outbreak, and other factors. The state government has the legal authority to order a shelter in place, and the legal authority to enforce such orders with fines or even jail time.

    Much depends on the laws of your state, your municipality, even city government guidelines. The City of Chicago, for example, began taking action to prevent coronavirus transmission before other Illinois schools due to the timing of the outbreak there.

    There are such things as federal shelter in place rules, too. DoD employees and military members, for example, have been ordered to shelter in place as much as mission requirements will permit.

    Telecommuting, remote work, conference calling, and other connectivity technology is brought in to replace in-person work as long as is feasible. The DoD situation is different since the Defense Department’s orders are legally binding, very specific, and apply to a strictly defined subset of people. That is not true of all stay-at-home orders.

    Who Is Affected By Shelter In Place

    At press time, there are a variety of communities affected by shelter in place. With few to no exceptions, many shelter in place orders (see below) were issued in March, leaving many to try to calculate when the coronavirus “wave” will break in their community based on how long it has taken other shelter-in-place situations to unfold.

    At the time of this writing there are 21 states total with shelter in place orders. As much as 50% of the American population could be affected by these orders. States with stay-at-home or shelter in place requirements at press time include:


    March 19 marks the first shelter in place restriction, issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom.


    Governor Jared Polis announced shelter in place from March 26 until April 11.


    Issues “Stay safe, stay at home”  March 23rd.


    Orders shelter in place from March 24 until May 15 or until the end of the threat to public health.


    Governor David Ige announced the state’s “stay at home” order March 25 through April 30.


    Governor Brad Little issued a 21-day shelter in place order March 25.


    Governor J.B. Pritzker issues a state-wide stay-at-home order for the entire state March 21 through April 7, but subject to further review or extension.


    Governor Eric Holcomb issued a shelter in place order March 24 through April 6.


    Announced a stay at home order March 23 through April 12.


    Governor Charlie Baker issued emergency orders similar to shelter in place including closing non-essential businesses, and restricts gatherings to 10 people but does not prohibit gatherings across the board as in some communities. This is likely one of the more liberal shelter-in-place type orders in the list.


    Governor Gretchen Whitmer has shelter in place for three weeks from March 24.


    Governor Tim Walz ordered shelter in place from March 27 until April 10.

    New Jersey

    Ordered shelter in place on March 21.

    New Mexico

    Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay at home order on March 24 and closed non-essential businesses for the duration of the order.

    New York

    Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered shelter in place on March 22, promising civil fines and mandatory closures for businesses that do not follow the order.


    Governor Mike DeWine announced a statewide stay-at-home order from March 22 to April 6.


    Governor. Kate Brown issued an executive order telling Oregon residents to stay home except for essential needs starting on March 23.


    Governor Phil Scott issued a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order from March 25 until April 15.


    Governor Jay Inslee’s order on March 23 lasts for two weeks.

    West Virginia

    Governor Jim Justice issued a stay-at-home order March 24.


    Governor Tony Evers initiated a “Safer at Home” order from March 25 – April 24. It is effective until then or until a superseding order is announced.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Veteran.com Team