What does it mean to shelter in place?

Millions of people in Northern California have been ordered to shelter in place — which is one of the strictest preventative measures utilized during the coronavirus outbreak thus far. New York City could be next. Mayor Bill de Blasio said he has not ruled out a shelter in place order for the city, and the decision could come within days, but Governor Andrew Cuomo later dismissed the idea and said he didn’t think it was workable. The nation’s largest city has already put restrictions in place for bars and restaurants, while schools and entertainment venues — including movie theaters and Broadway — have closed.

An order to shelter in place may be implemented for a variety of scenarios, such as natural disasters like tornadoes, active shooters, or chemical, radiological or other hazards. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said where you stay during a shelter in place can differ depending on the emergency.

“Listen carefully to local radio or television stations for instructions, because the exact directions will depend on the emergency situation,” according to the CDC.

During a pandemic like coronavirus, officials may ask residents to shelter in place for weeks. Such was the case in California, where residents in at least seven counties have been asked to stay home for at least three weeks. 

What can people expect if they’re asked to shelter in place? Here are the rules officials may implement as a means to prevent the spread of coronavirus.


In California, all non-essential travel has been banned and people are being told to work from home or stop working unless they provide an “essential service,” CBS San Francisco Bay Area reports.

Essential government services include police, firefighters, out transit and sanitation workers, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Monday. While most people will be asked to stay inside, there are some instances you could leave your home — as long as you don’t abuse it.

“Grocery stores, and pharmacies, and banks, and gas stations will remain open,” Breed said. “Restaurants will be open for takeout only. She added that non-essential businesses like bars and gyms would close at 12 a.m. Wednesday.

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In New York, restaurants have already been advised to stick to take-out and other non-essential business have closed. With word of the potential shelter in place, many residents scrambled to get to grocery stores and stock up on emergency food

If a shelter in place is implemented, it would likely include a yet-to-be-created method for making sure people can still get to and from grocery stores and pharmacies, de Blasio said, according to CBS New York.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of stocking up. That’s my polite phrase for it,” de Blasio said. “I am of course concerned. I want to emphasize how important it is to share with other people.”

So, during a shelter in place, most activity would be limited, but provisions would be made for getting necessities like food and medicine. Similar rules were implemented when Spain and Italy were put on lockdown.

According to the government decree in Spain, people are only allowed to leave their homes to buy food and medicine, commute to work, go to medical centers and banks or take trips related to the care for the young and the elderly during the lockdown.

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Unlike less stringent social-distancing guidelines, the police will step in if a shelter in place is grossly ignored. The California order, which went into affect Tuesday, noted: “Violation of or failure to comply with this Order is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.”

Sergeant Ray Kelly with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department said they expect most people to stay home over the next three weeks, but that deputies will step in if people are blatantly ignoring the restrictions, which are some of the most stringent in the country.

Penalties and rules for a shelter in place could differ depending on the area. 

As of Tuesday, California is the only state where a shelter in place order is active in some areas. De Blasio said he would be in close communication with Governor Andrew Cuomo before making a decision for his own city, saying “I see the numbers escalating and I’m very concerned.”

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