what is a stay at home order

What Does a Stay at Home Order Mean?

What does a stay at home order mean and does it vary from state-to-state? Though seemingly simple in nature, stay at home orders can be confusing to follow and enforce. Their goal is to limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible to protect healthcare workers from flooding hospitals with patients and more vulnerable members of society, such as elderly people and those with preexisting conditions.

A stay at home order loosely specifies that everyone is supposed to stay inside unless they are an essential worker or need to perform a necessary task. But what qualifies as necessary? And who exactly is essential? Here’s what you need to know.

The following is meant for educational purposes. It is not legal advice.

UPDATE: Minnesota and California renew their stay-at-home orders.

What Is a Stay at Home Order?

Otherwise known as a shelter in place order or quarantine, a stat at home order is a legal directive that an entire population — of a city, county, state or entire country — remain indoors unless absolutely necessary. It may also be referred to as a lockdown.

Terms Related to Stay at Home Orders:

  • Shelter in place
  • Lockdown
  • Mass quarantine

Though these terms have different connotations, authority figures or the media may use them to communicate the same thing: People who are non-essential must not leave their homes. Today, state governments are using these directives to “flatter the curve” for coronavirus. They’re a step beyond social distancing, which means staying a minimum of 6 ft away from other people and does not preclude leaving the house.

Some local governments have also imposed a curfew. Check your county/state for specifics.

Who Can Leave the House Under a Stay at Home Order?

Technically, everyone can — but their business has to be essential. People can only leave their homes for the essentials, such as:

  • Groceries
  • Medication
  • Healthcare
  • Pet care
  • Childcare
  • Exercise

It also means that non-essential businesses must close. These may include restaurants, offices, movie theaters, stores, coffee shops and so many more. By contrast, pharmacies, grocery stores, liquor stores, the post office and some takeout places may remain open. These rules vary state-to-state, so check in with your local government for up-to-date specifics.

Who Qualifies As an Essential Worker?

As stay at home orders are imposed by local governments, the rules on who is essential vary. Businesses have also been accused of stretching the definition of what is essential, or of willfully breaking the law due to lax enforcement of a stay at home order.

The following people may be considered essential:

  • Healthcare workers
  • Delivery drivers
  • Mail carriers
  • Public utility workers (electricity, water supply, internet, sewage, natural gas, transportation, and other service providers)
  • Factory workers
  • Grocery store clerks
  • Armed forces, police, and firemen

A percentage of the following may be considered essential:

  • Agriculture workers
  • Communications industry workers
  • Essential supply chain workers
  • Foodservice providers
  • Justice system employees
  • Financial services

In short, most Americans’ jobs have been deemed non-essential during the pandemic. As a result, more than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment, which is estimated to be 11% of the workforce.

Many employed Americans are facing the new challenge of working remotely.

How Long Will Stay at Home Orders Last?

Though sheltering in place has helped slow the tide of coronavirus infections in place such as California, New York and Seattle, it remains unclear how long states will keep these measures in place. This is because cases will undoubtedly rise once governments relax measures.

Some health experts have predicted that returning to a pre-coronavirus lifestyle may not be entirely possible because the threat of infection will remain. It is also predicted that life as we knew it will not return to normal until there is a vaccine or herd immunity: 60% or more of the population has been exposed, and has survived.

Can You Travel During a Stay at Home Order?

It is not advisable to travel to states with such quarantine orders in place as they are experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases. In most cases, tourism is strongly discouraged, but states have not implemented coronavirus travel restrictions for essential trips.

Which States Have Stay at Home Orders?

In April of 2020, the majority of U.S. states and territories have some form of a directive in place to slow the spread of COVD-19. Here is an overview of what some had in place, though please see government websites for current information:

Which States Were First to Implement Stay at Home Orders?


  • Start Date: March 19
  • California had the first stay-at-home order
  • Though not police-enforced, all non-essential workers are instructed to stay home


  • Start Date: March 23
  • All non-essential gatherings are canceled and residents are told not to congregate in groups
  • Only necessary businesses and organizations remain open


  • Start Date: March 21
  • Grocery store, pharmacy and exercise-related activities are still permitted
  • The governor has asked the White House to implement similar measures nationally

New Jersey

  • Start Date: March 21
  • All gatherings are prohibited under the state’s stay-at-home order.
  • Essential businesses to remain open, including gas stations, banks, cannabis dispensaries, grocery stores and others.
  • Parks and forests are also closed as of April 7th

New York

  • Start Date: March 22
  • Fines and mandatory closures will be enforced for businesses (but not individuals) who disobey the governor’s executive order
  • Outdoor activities are also to be limited due to the concentration of COVID-19 cases and population density
  • Cuomo encourages residents to wear non-surgical face masks or coverings when out in public


  • Start Date: March 23
  • Restaurants have drive-through, takeout and delivery options only
  • All non-essential businesses close
  • New Orleans has the fastest-growing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States


  • Start Date: March 23
  • For two weeks, Washington residents are told to stay home, except for food, necessities, essential work, and exercise.
  • Seattle experienced the first surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States and imposed a stay-at-home order early on.


  • Start Date: March 23
  • All non-essential recreational and social gatherings of any size are prohibited.
  • All non-essential businesses must close
  • Businesses that do not follow the order may receive a misdemeanor and be forced to close


  • Start Date: March 23
  • Restaurants can stay open for takeout, but non-essential businesses must close

Which States Have Late or Lenient Strict Stay at Home Orders? (Updated April 10th)


  • Does not have a stay at home order at the time of writing


  • Start Date: March 30
  • Under Virginia’s order, residents are still permitted to go to work, in addition to performing necessary activities and shopping.
  • The Governor's order was in response to packed beaches in Virginia. Beaches have since been closed except for exercise.


  • Start Date: April 4
  • Stay at home orders for all people except essential workers
  • Religious activities are exempt from the mandate


  • Start Date: April 3
  • All non-essential businesses are to close
  • Churches and religious ceremonies are classified as essential
  • Anyone traveling from a place with a concentration of COVID-19 cases must quarantine for 14 days


  • The state is among the last without a stay-at-home order
  • Iowa has, however, received praise from Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Andrew Fauci, who said that the state's policies are "functionally equivalent."

South Carolina

  • Start Date: April 7
  • Though it is not strictly a stay at home order, people are required to remain at home unless they are going to work, buying essentials, visiting family or exercising.
  • South Carolina is among the last to issue a state-wide policy in response to COVID-19.


  • Oklahoma has encouraged vulnerable populations such as older residents to remain indoors.
  • The state has not issued a state-wide shelter in place order but has declared a state of emergency and ordered all essential businesses to close.
  • Cities including Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Norman have told all residents to shelter in place, however.


  • Nebraska does not mandate that all residents stay home.
  • The state has encouraged people to work from home when possible, or socially distance in the workplace

North Dakota

  • North Dakota does not have a stay-at-home order to date
  • However, schools, bars, and sports clubs have been shuttered

South Dakota

  • The state has not issued a state-wide edict to remain at home
  • Older populations are however mandated to stay in their residences

stay at home order

Stay at Home Orders in the Remaining States


  • Start Date: March 28
  • Directive to remain at home and stop travel between locations


  • Start Date: March 31
  • Everyone except essential workers.
  • Outdoor activities encouraged with social distancing


  • Start Date: March 26
  • All people instructed to remain at their residents except when necessary


  • Start Date: March 24
  • Stay at home order in effect, except for groceries, healthcare, childcare, pet care, and other essentials
  • Outdoor activities with social distancing are permitted

District of Columbia

  • Start Date: March 30
  • If residents violate the order, they may be charged with a misdemeanor and receive a fine.


  • Start Date: April 3
  • Georgia orders all residents and non-essential workers to stay home
  • Atlanta issued a similar order on March 23


  • Start Date: March 25
  • Residents must remain indoors, aside from necessary activities


  • Start Date: March 25
  • The directive lasts for a minimum of 21 days
  • The Governor is enlisting the help of the national guard, though how they will help is not specified


  • Start Date: March 24
  • The National Guard is assisting in distributing supplies, but not enforcing the stay-at-home order


  • Start Date: March 30
  • Outdoor activities, and seeking medical care, medicine, food and other essentials are permitted
  • Anyone traveling from Florida, California, Washington, New York and New Jersey must quarantine for 14 days.


  • Start Date: March 26
  • Anyone returning to Kentucky from out-of-state is required to self-quarantine for a minimum of 14 days


  • Start Date: April 2
  • All non-essential workers must remain in their residences


  • Start Date: March 30
  • Everyone must remain indoors except for necessary shopping and other activities
  • Gatherings of more than 10 people are banned
  • Essential businesses are not defined


  • Start Date: March 24
  • Gatherings of more than 10 people are allowed in outdoor spaces with social distancing but not indoors
  • All non-essential businesses must close physical spaces and adopt work-from-home policies


  • Start Date: March 24
  • Everyone aside from essential workers is required to stay home for a minimum of three weeks.
  • Public and private gatherings are banned, except for those who live together.


  • Start Date: March 27
  • Stay at home order in place for everyone who is not an essential worker or purchasing necessary supplies or caring for someone such as a child, elderly relative, or pet.


  •  Start Date: April 1
  • Only essential businesses are permitted to stay open
  • Fishing remains permitted, though social distancing must be maintained
  • Evictions are also banned under the state's edict


  • Start Date: April 6
  • Residents are to only leave the house for essential tasks and eating or drinking at restaurants and bars is discouraged.

Social distancing is required when out of doors.


  • Start Date: March 28
  • To avoid overwhelming the healthcare system, the Governor imposed a stay at home order for everyone besides essential workers.


  • Start Date: April 1
  • All non-essential work and scholars closed through April 30 at the earliest

New Mexico

  • Start Date: March 24
  • All non-essential businesses remain closed due to a decree from the Governor

North Carolina

  • Start Date: March 30
  • Social distancing is required for everyone who leaves the house under North Carolina’s order.


  • Start Date: April 1
  • Outdoor activities are allowed but social distancing is essential
  • Though essential activities are still permitted, the Secretary of Health emphasized in a release that “staying at home means you must stay at home.”

Rhode Island

  • Start Date: March 28
  • Gathers of over 5 people are prohibited
  • Non-critical businesses are closed, except for pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations, banks, and other essentials.
  • Any out-of-state travelers must quarantine for 14 days, especially those from New York


  • Start Date: April 2
  • Though Tennessee had encouraged people to remain at home prior to April 2, the Governor made it official as movement around the state persisted.


  • Start Date: April 2
  • Though the Governor did not use the terminology “stay at home” or “shelter in place,” his edict orders everyone in Texas to remain at home through all of April.
  • Counties and cities within Texas had issued stay-at-home orders prior.
  • Anyone coming from out-of-state regions such as New York, California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Detroit, Chicago, Miami, and Atlanta must self-quarantine for 14 days.


  • Start Date: March 25
  • Vermont residents are encouraged not to leave unless it is paramount to safety or health.

West Virginia

  • Start Date: March 24
  • Social distancing is enforced for outdoor activities and essential shopping.
  • Non-essential businesses are closed and restaurants are only to offer takeout.


  • Start Date: March 25
  • Essential functions and workers are permitted to leave the house.
  • All non-essential businesses are required to close.

What Are Stay at Home Orders? Necessary Restrictions to Slow COVID-19 Cases

Sheltering in place is a major challenge for almost everyone. Not only has it had extreme economic impacts (over 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment) but it can impact mental health, fitness and so much more. Though COVID-19 is not fatal for everyone, diminishing the rate of fatality means preventing hospitals from overwhelm. That means slowing the rate of transmission through stay at home orders and policies like social distancing and self-quarantine.

DISCLAIMER: None of this information is medical advice. Please speak with your doctor if you are concerned about your health.

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