What’s the Difference Between Shelter in Place, Safer at Home, and Stay Home Orders?

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, local governments are not only forced to provide essential services under dangerous circumstances, they are also responsible for clearly communicating emergency procedures to the public. This often requires taking terms used by emergency personnel and translating them for a much broader audience. The task of taking technical information and making it accessible to people of different ages, incomes, abilities, and levels of vulnerability is not simple – especially when it could potentially restrict the free movement of people and their families. Despite the challenging nature of this task, many cities and states are rising to the occasion. 

What is the difference between lockdown, shelter in place, safer at home, and stay at home orders? 

Cities, counties, and states across the country are issuing various distancing measures to flatten the coronavirus infection curve. According to the New York Times on March 30th, “nearly three out of every four Americans are under stay at home orders.” However, not all these orders mean the same thing in every jurisdiction. It’s important that local leaders clearly define what these declarations mean and how they plan to implement them.  

Safer at home and stay at home orders are arguably the most similar but still vary depending on the locality. Safer at home generally means that citizens should make every effort to stay at home to limit the spread of coronavirus. However, in some jurisdictions a safer at home order allows non-essential businesses to remain open if they limit capacity or self-impose physical distancing in their store. Stay at home orders tend to be more aggressive measures. While each location is different, most stay at home orders limit movement to essential activities like doctor visits, grocery shopping, or going to work for essential workers. Most states allow residents to go outside for exercise if physical distancing is maintained.  

While safer at home and stay at home orders have some similarities, shelter in place is more restrictive. According to the CDC, shelter in place orders usually mean you should stay inside a building, room, or vehicle until additional guidance is given. Despite the more stringent nature of these orders, not all jurisdictions are using them the same. In some locations, public transit continues to operate as well as other essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies.   


As more and more jurisdictions adopt movement restrictions like shelter in place and stay at home orders, it is critical that local law enforcement agencies have the information, resources, and authority needed to enforce these measures. Enforcement will look different in each jurisdiction. In some areas, local police forces have opted for an approach that prioritizes educating the public instead of criminalization or financial penalties.  

While some authorities have made the decision to prioritize education over enforcement, other jurisdictions are considering stricter enforcement as COVID-19 continues to spread in their communities. From higher fines to misdemeanors, some cities are looking to establish stiffer consequences for citizens who do not comply with movement restricting orders. While it is critical that citizens comply with these measures to flatten the curve, cities should consider the equity implications of imposing higher fines and stronger charges. While intentions may be good, these measures may disproportionally impact communities of color and vulnerable populations such as homeless and housing insecure individuals. Increasing enforcement may also lead to higher jail populations at a time when correction officials are working to limit the spread of COVID-19 and trials are being postponed due to physical distancing. Accordingly, it is important to consider any enhanced enforcement from an equity perspective before moving forward. 

Member Highlight – San Jose Leading, Advocating, and Managing for Safety 

The Bay Area has taken incredible steps to respond to the growing threat of coronavirus, including being an early adopter of measures to stop the spread and flatten the curve. City officials have prioritized educating residents about the importance of adhering to the stay at home order before moving to stiffer penalties. In addition to supporting the regional stay home order, city leaders have partnered with business and community leaders to launch a new initiative called Silicon Valley Strong to serve as a hub for residents to get information and resources. Following best practices, Silicon Valley Strong offers information in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Perhaps most importantly, Silicon Valley Strong reminds residents that “social distancing does not mean social isolation” and calls the community to take care of each other through acts like adhering to the stay at home guidance, supporting relief efforts for vulnerable populations, and prioritizing mental and physical health.  

What Local Leaders Should Know About Stay at Home, Shelter in Place, and Safer at Home Orders 

  1. Not all physical distancing orders are the same. Each state, county, and city will have specific requirements for their executive orders, ordinances, and emergency declaration. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the requirements of these orders and how they may impact the community you serve.  
  2. Listen to the Health Experts. Before implementing or lifting a physical distancing order, connect with your local health official. During this moment of crisis, it is critical that local health officials are driving our response efforts. 
  3. Consider Equity. Consider how your order will impact vulnerable populations and work to mitigate the negative effects. Make sure police are equitably deployed across the city and that they are not overrepresented in communities of color or lowincome communities. 
  4. Communicate Clearly. Before, during, and following issuing this declaration, clearly communicate what movement is allowed, what businesses may stay open, and what occupations are essential. Consider using simple language with accompanying visuals. Make sure that the declaration and orders are available in multiple languages to ensure all community members are informed, and that their questions are being answered. Consider hiring community members with social capital and language skills as community messengers to spread the word about the declaration. 
  5. Consider Enforcement. What role will your local law enforcement play to ensure the public is compliant with this order? What are the implications of this enforcement on other systems in your community? Consult resources like the CDC to determine what your enforcement procedures will be and how or when they may need to be enhanced. Develop objective standards for enforcement implementation to ensure fines and criminalization are a last resort.  
  6. Connect with Knowledge Sharing Networks. Reach out to local, regional, and national experts who can help you determine the impact of movement limiting orders in your area. Whether your state already has a safer at home order in place or not, it is likely that more jurisdictions will turn to these measures as Coronavirus continues to spread across the country. Consider reaching out to your state municipal league and other experts in your region who can help you develop a plan. 

About the Authors: 

Jordan Carter is the Senior Program Specialist for the Race, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) department at NLC.

Yucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the Legislative Director for Public Safety and Crime Prevention at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.

Stacy Richardson is the Program Director for Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.