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Stay-at-home vs shelter-in-place: Here's what they mean

Cities and counties around the country are considering and adopting both stay-at-home and shelter-in-place measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Stay-at-home. Shelter-in-place. Safer-at-home.

These are terms often used in local and national emergencies and enacted by state and local governments to keep people safe. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they're becoming commonplace as nations try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

But, do they all mean the same? The short answer is no.

However, one city's stay-at-home order may be exactly the same -- or wildly different -- than another city's or county's. 

"Stay-at-home" and "Safer-at-home" are the most similar depending on the exact verbiage of the order being enacted. And, many of these orders around the country have similar rules and guidance.

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What is a stay-at-home order?

Depending on the exact wording of the order, it requires everyone living in the city, county or state to limit travel outside the home only to essential activities and for outdoor exercise.

At least a dozen states have issued stay-at-home orders. And, some cities and counties have issued similar orders. These orders are not total lockdowns as federal law lets each state, city or county to decide its own rules when requiring residents to stay home.

So far, most stay-at-home orders have similar exemptions that let residents get groceries, go outside for fresh air and exercise, go to doctor's visits and the pharmacy and provide essential infrastructure and utility services. 

What is a safer-at-home order?

Again, depending on who is drafting and issuing the order, safer-at-home mostly means the same as a stay-at-home order. Governments like Pinellas County's named their order "Safer-at-Home" but still requires residents to stay at home as much as possible.

However, unlike similar measures around the country, Pinellas County's safer-at-home order allows non-essential businesses to remain open so long as they self-police when it comes to social distancing. 

What is a shelter-in-place order?

A shelter-in-place order is typically used by local authorities during or right after an emergency. For example, one can be issued during a mass shooting or a tornado. It usually means you should stay inside the building, room or car you are in until further notice, according to the CDC.

However, some shelter-in-place orders issued during the coronavirus pandemic don't require people to stay in certain buildings or prevent them from going outside. 

Similar to a stay-at-home order, San Francisco's shelter-in-place order has exemptions for essential businesses like grocery stores, health care facilities and restaurants with delivery. And, airports and most public transportation are still open, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the term "shelter-in-place" can invoke panic. On Tuesday, the New York Times editorial board wrote "all Americans need to shelter in place" and "it's time for a national lockdown."

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