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Shelter in Place Laws

When an emergency requires states to issue shelter in place or stay at home orders, each state takes a different approach. Basically, these types of orders require Americans to stay at home except to do essential activities like grocery shopping or going to the pharmacy.

What Exactly Is Shelter in Place?

A shelter in place order forces all non-essential businesses to close and prohibits people from leaving their homes except to do essential functions.

Local officials use shelter in place orders when there is an emergency, or immediately after an emergency. These orders are typically used in emergencies like chemical spills or natural disasters.

Officials may also issue a shelter in place order during a pandemic like COVID-19. This has been the case in several U.S states where multiple governors ordered residents to stay home for weeks.

Terms of Shelter in Place: What Am I Allowed to Do?

The terms of each shelter in place order are usually spelled out through the specific laws of a state or a city. For instance, one of the phrases consistently used in the shelter in place laws for preventing the spread of COVID-19 is "keep 6 feet apart."

In most shelter in place orders, you are allowed to do the following:

  • Go for a walk or a hike, practicing the required social distancing rules
  • Buy groceries
  • Take care of a person in your household (exercising the appropriate precautions)
  • Go to the pharmacy
  • Go to work if you are employed in an essential business

Are You an Essential Business/Employee?

This will depend on the state laws and how authorities choose to approach them. Some states may follow the guidance issued by federal institutions, while others create their own criteria to identify what qualifies as an essential business.

Illinois, California, and Minnesota, for instance, followed the guidelines outlined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cyber Security & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to identify essential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, states like New York and Pennsylvania came up with their own standard when determining what qualified as an essential business.

In general, the following businesses will typically qualify as essential businesses:

  • Companies in the health care industry
  • Food production and delivery
  • The information technology sector
  • Gas stations
  • Grocery stores
  • Public utilities

Who Can Declare a Shelter in Place?

State governments ultimately have the power to declare a shelter in place order. This power can derive from the state constitution, statutes, or regulations. However, the states can also give cities and towns authority, allowing them to take their own actions.

How Can Shelter in Place Rules Be Enforced?

The answer depends on what the actual rules say. Some shelter in place rules like ones in Santa Clara county state that violating shelter in place "is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both." Other states are merely relying on the mounting social pressure on individuals to comply with the orders.

Shelter in Place, Stay at Home, Lockdown, Self-Quarantine. Is There a Difference?

Shelter in place orders, as stated above, are mostly issued immediately after or during an emergency. This can be done as a response to a natural disaster or during wartime  (for chemical and nuclear attacks). 

What Does a Stay at Home Order Mean?

A "stay at home order" is usually ordered to limit movements of the population to slow down the spread of a virus. Thus, some state officials may use "stay at home"  instead of "shelter in place" during pandemics. This is because, during a pandemic, the type of isolation required to prevent the spread may be different. 

In essence, however, both shelter in place orders and stay at home orders outline the same thing.

What Is a Lockdown? 

Lockdown is usually ordered when there is a specific threat, like an active shooter. When a lockdown is ordered, people are required to look for space that is safe at that moment.

What Is a Self-Quarantine Order?

Self-quarantine will be ordered if you have been potentially exposed to something that may transmit to others. In such cases, you will be ordered to stay at home for a specific period, not have any visitors, and keep distance between you and anyone living in your household.

Additional Resources

Still Have Questions? An Attorney Can Help

Shelter in place and stay at home rules and the specific requirements that come with them can often be confusing. These rules can also have a wide range of legal implications for businesses and individuals. If you have legal concerns regarding a shelter in place rule, it is worth your time to speak to an attorney near you.

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If you are facing legal issues because of a shelter in place order, talk to a lawyer.

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