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What does a "stay-at-home" order really mean?

Officials call for federal coronavirus order
Officials call for federal coronavirus order 03:14

As the coronavirus continues to spread uncontrollably across the U.S., most cities and states have been put under stay-at-home orders — but not all of them. As of Friday, a handful of states are still not under full stay-at-home orders, even though federal health officials believe such measures can help slow the spread of the virus. What exactly is a stay-at-home order and what do the rules entail?

What is a stay-at-home order?

California and New York, two hotspots for the coronavirus outbreak, were two of the first states to implement stay-at-home orders, which limit the circumstances under which people can leave their houses. Under a stay-at-home order, all non-essential workers must stay home. People can leave their homes only for essential needs like grocery stores and medicine, or for solo outdoor exercise.

Only businesses that have been deemed essential can continue to operate. That means restaurants must close to customers and may only offer take-out and delivery. Schools are closed and many types of jobs must be done from home, if possible. Millions of Americans have seen their jobs vanish.

Essential workers include health care providers, police officers, firefighters, utility service crews, and grocery store and pharmacy workers. 

Other essential services can vary by state. For example, in some states where medical marijuana is legal, like California, dispensaries are allowed to operate under stay-at-home orders. In New York City, many apartment building staff workers are considered essential. Some states are specifically allowing gun stores and liquor shops.

So check your state's stay-at-home order for specific rules on essential businesses.

Which states are under stay-at-home orders?

After several counties in Northern California issued a shelter-in-place order, Governor Gavin Newsom decided to put the whole state under a stay-at-home order on March 19. Both types of orders are very similar in that people are only allowed out of their homes for essential businesses or to buy essential goods. 

The statewide stay-at-home order "shall be enforceable pursuant to California law," the order reads. The order also directs the Office of Emergency Services to take necessary steps to ensure compliance.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to put his state under a stay-at-home order on March 20; it went into effect on the 22nd. Cuomo said he would refrain from calling it a "shelter in place" order because "words matter," and that term is often used for active shooter situations or other scenarios that are different from extended isolation.

Dozens of other states and the District of Columbia also did so in the days that followed.

On April 1, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis joined them in issuing a statewide stay-at-home order after many officials criticized the county-by-county approach as Florida's coronavirus case count multiplied.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said on NBC's "Today" show that he would tell DeSantis that the federal guidelines for social distancing should be viewed as "a national stay-at-home order." President Trump has extended the federal "social distancing" guidelines through April 30, but those recommendations are not legally enforceable.

Some cities and counties have issued their own stay-at-home orders even in states that haven't done so statewide, so people should check on their specific community's public health guidelines for more information. 

Why are stay-at-home orders important?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's top infectious disease doctors and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he doesn't know why some states are holding out, saying they "really should" reconsider.

"You know, the tension between federally mandated versus states' rights to do what they want is something I don't want to get into," Fauci said on CNN. "But if you look at what's going on in this country, I just don't understand why we're not doing that."

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker called the lack of a national stay-at-home order a "profound failure." Some state and local officials across the U.S. have asked President Trump to impose a national stay-at-home order.

Both social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders aim to do the same thing: flatten the curve. The goal is to reduce the spread of the virus to try to keep it from overwhelming the health care system, which is being stretched far beyond its normal limits.

In addition to encouraging people to stay home, the social distancing guidelines advise everyone to stay at least 6 feet away from others if they must leave their house, and to wash their hands frequently for at least 20 seconds at a time. 

A growing number of health officials, along with the mayors of New York City and Los Angeles, are also starting to encourage people to wear a homemade face mask or scarf covering their nose and mouth when they go out to avoid potentially infecting others. 

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