The Meaning of ‘Shelter in Place,’ and How It Relates to Social Distancing

Photo: Stocksy / Lauren Naefe
The San Francisco Bay Area woke up Tuesday to an order of "shelter in place." By Thursday night, Gov. Gavin Newsom had ordered California's 40 million residents to "stay at home." The order exempts essential travel to grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. At a news conference on Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said he was considering a similar "shelter in place" order for the five boroughs, though Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wouldn't approve it.

While it might sound like something scary, the meaning of  "shelter in place," says Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, is simple: you need to stay home. And the reasoning behind such an order is important: it stops people from getting sick.

Sheltering in place isn't totally dissimilar from what's happening in Italy, says Dr. Labus, but the Bay Area's order still allows people to go out to buy food, get medical treatment, care for family members, engage in outdoor activities while keeping six feet away from others, and go to work in certain industries like health care or law enforcement, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"A broad shelter in place might be enforced after an emergency, when you absolutely do not let people go out in public," says Dr. Labus. "In [San Francisco's] case, people can still go out for important critical things. It's not like they have police roaming the streets or stopping people from leaving their homes. They're just making it so that people do it as little as possible."

Generally, a shelter in place order is used for a short period of time in which it's unsafe for a community members to venture outside, like during an active shooter situation, or a chemical spill, says Dr. Labus.

"Even though we've used 'shelter in place' before, we haven't really used it [recently in the United States] in this kind of context," he says. "It's really kind of a new experience using it like this. And I can understand that it's a scary experience for a lot of people, but the goal is to keep people from getting sick."

Current shelter in place orders allow for local, county, or state governments to enforce social distancing. Some areas have closed schools and restaurants while others are taking seemingly more drastic measures, but Dr. Labus stresses that each move is working toward the same goal.

"We're trying to keep people from congregating in places where they can spread disease," he says. "Of course, we make exceptions for going out for seeking medical care, or if you're out of food or medicine you have to go out of the house. But the idea is to keep people from coming in contact with each other."

While more and more communities may decide to enact shelter in place orders, Dr. Labus said it's likely that many will not.

"Communities have to decide what is best for them based on how much disease they're seeing, and what steps will best protect their population," he says. "For example, if you close the school system down, that's going to have an effect throughout the entire community." When this happens, he says, people have to stay home with their kids, which means businesses will have to shut down because they don't have the employees. "Closing schools may be effective enough in reducing that contact," he says. "Every community has to decide what is best to implement to achieve this goal of keeping people home."

Originally published March 17, 2020; last updated March 20, 2020.

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