What 'shelter in place' means and why it matters


Because of the coronavirus (COVID-19), many state governments have called for residents to shelter in place.

  • Learn why it’s so important to shelter in place.
  • Get answers to questions about sheltering in place.
  • Be part of flattening the curve.
  • Find out if your state is recommending sheltering in place.


The actor Tom Hanks, who was recently diagnosed with the coronavirus (COVID-19), tweeted a wonderfully simple definition of what it means to shelter in place. “Sheltering in place works like this. You don’t give it to anyone – you don’t get it from anyone. Common sense – no?”

Most likely, the words “shelter in place” aren’t new to you. You may have heard the term mentioned many times during reports of natural disasters or other local or national emergencies. When your local or state government orders you to go inside your home with your loved ones, pets and emergency supplies, they are doing it for the collective wellness of communities. It’s super serious and citizens must respond by taking action…within their homes.

Here’s what is new though: the coronavirus (COVID-19). It’s a virus that is transmitted through droplets from sneezing and coughing, so the less human contact we all have the higher the chances we’ll a) stop the spread and b) reduce the possibility of contracting it ourselves. 

These two facts are driving the decision state governments across the nation are making to ask residents to stay home. Each state is offering their own interpretation of what sheltering in place means, but the underpinning gist is stay in your home and practice physical distancing. Do a search on “shelter in place” with your state name to find out what the orders are for where you live.

Each state is offering their own interpretation of what sheltering in place means, but the underpinning gist is stay in your home and practice physical distancing. Do a search on “shelter in place” with your state name to find out what the orders are where you live.

Most shelter in place orders still let residents take care of essential needs like going to the store for groceries and the drugstore for medicines. You can even go to a local park for some fresh air or exercise (as long as you keep your distance from others and stay away from benches or playground equipment).

Why is it important to shelter in place?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a clear and simple explanation for why sheltering in place is vital for everyone to do.

  • The best way to keep from getting ill from COVID-19 is to keep from being exposed to it in the first place.
  • It’s thought that the virus spreads mainly from person to person when they’re in close contact with each other. That’s within about 6 feet.
  • If you’re within 6 feet of an infected person who coughs or sneezes, respiratory droplets can land in your nose or mouth and then be inhaled into your lungs.
  • If you’re infected – whether you’re showing symptoms or not – you can spread it to others. It can take up to 14 days for symptoms of the virus to appear (the incubation period).

At this time there’s no vaccine to treat or prevent COVID-19, distance from other humans is the best medicine we have. 

And since at this time there’s no vaccine to treat or prevent COVID-19, distance from other humans is the best medicine we have. While this is a difficult request for many of us, it’s the right thing to do to help society overall. Real talk: if enough people stop spreading it by staying home the call to shelter in place can end sooner rather than later.

Answers to questions about sheltering in place

One of the consistent messages from the medical community is to maintain physical distancing. This public health approach is in place to try to help every American slow down the spread of COVID-19.

There are general guidelines that most states have in place. But keep in mind that your state, or even local, government may have added guidelines or orders you need to follow. Here are some questions we’ve heard from patients across our seven-state region:

Is "self-quarantine" the same as shelter in place?

While shelter in place is the general term used to order citizens to stay at home for a certain period of time, self-quarantine is based on a different strategy. People will self-quarantine when they have a risk of infection because they may have been exposed to the virus or if they believe they have COVID-19. A self-quarantine is when someone stays home and away from other people as much as possible and is often recommended by a doctor if symptoms (e.g. fever, cough and sneezing) are present.

Pro tip: If you have any symptoms at all, it’s best to over-react in this climate. Nobody is going to judge you for taking drastic measure if you have one or two of the symptoms.

I co-parent with my former spouse — can we keep doing that?

Because most shelter in place orders are designed to keep contact between groups to a minimum, your state will most likely want you to figure out a way to keep your households from mingling. Check your state’s order though. Many are allowing people to travel to care for children so they can comply with their legal agreements. That means you would be able to keep caring for your kids under joint custody arrangements.

Pro tip: Talk to your co-parent to agree on a plan that includes limited external exposure in each household, and create a process for thorough hand-washing when moving between households.

Can I have people like babysitters and plumbers come to my home?

Many state orders will allow for home-based care for children, adults or seniors. This includes babysitters and nannies. Most orders also let service providers such as plumbers and electricians go to homes. The idea is that these services are needed to maintain the safety, cleanliness and operation of residences. But when it comes to services such as housecleaning, most are not allowed unless it’s for the health and safety of the household. It’s all about avoiding exposure to the virus.

Pro tip: If you have someone come to your home for any type of service, ask them to wash their hands thoroughly before touching anything, and when they depart use disinfectant to wipe down anything they touched (e.g. door knobs).

Can I leave home during a shelter in place order?

A stay-at-home order can vary based on where you live, but most include exemptions, which means activities the order allows you to do. For the most part, states are letting residents:

  • Get emergency health services.
  • Go to the grocery store (check for updated hours).
  • Go to work if it’s “essential,” which usually means going to workplaces such as post offices, hospitals, banks or grocery stores.
  • Get your exercise outdoors by hiking, biking or taking your dog for a walk. Just be sure to stay away from others by at least 6 feet.
  • Help others such as family members, friends or neighbors who may need care or transportation.

Most states believe their citizens will follow the shelter in place order because they want to do their civic duty for the greater good of their communities. 

Most states believe their citizens will follow the shelter in place order because they want to do their civic duty for the greater good of their communities. At this time, most states don’t require proof that you’re allowed to be outside your home.  

Pro tip: Use common sense. If you need to go for a walk to get your mind right, do it responsibly. If you need to go to the store or pharmacy practice physical distancing. And, if you’re not in what is deemed an essential occupation, stay home.

Should I still get carryout or delivery meals?

The U.S. government is urging everyone in the country not to have dine-in meals at restaurants or go to bars. Still, many places are open for carryout and delivery services. And you may wonder: Are you safe eating food that’s prepared by someone else, especially a person you don’t know?

At this point, there’s no proof you could get COVID-19 by eating food. That’s because most viruses can’t survive basic food-safety measures such as using heat and washing hands.

Still, keep in mind that takeout foods come in containers. So, while the food itself may not make you sick, there’s a chance that a virus is on the surface of the container. A recent study showed that a virus can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours. Some things you can do:

  • Wear gloves to open takeout containers.
  • Use your own silverware instead of an eatery’s plastic cutlery.
  • Above all, wash your hands throughout the process of handling restaurant meals.

Pro tip: Order from restaurants you trust and know subscribe to FDA requirements.

How do I get my aging-but-active parents (or other family members) to shelter in place?

COVID-19 doesn’t care how old a person is — anyone of any age can contract COVID-19. Still, the virus is especially dangerous for people 65 years and older, especially for those with preexisting health complications.

Recent data from the CDC says that 31% - 70% of adults 85 years and older needed to be hospitalized, while 31% - 59% of adults 65 to 84 years had to stay in the hospital. Those numbers don’t include the older adults who had to be admitted to intensive care or died.

A recent survey showed that only 47% of U.S. adults over the age of 60 are worried about dying from COVID-19 — even though they’re the most at risk. 

You might think those figures would be enough to keep most older adults at home. But a recent survey showed that only 47% of U.S. adults over the age of 60 are worried about dying from COVID-19 — even though they’re the most at risk. Many adult children are struggling to get their elderly parents to shelter in place and take other safety measures against the disease. If that’s you, here are some things you can do:

  • Keep in mind that different generations often consume the news differently — they truly may not realize the extent of the pandemic and how it affects them.
  • Talk calmly with your parents about the dangers of the virus and explain the advice given by credible sources like the CDC, WHO and NIH. Let parents know they’re putting themselves and others in danger by not sheltering in place. Remind them there’s a 14-day incubation period and some people don’t even have symptoms at all.
  • Advise parents that if they really feel they must go out, they need to distance themselves. Suggest they use their pharmacy’s drive-thru or the pick-up service at a grocery store.
  • Think of ways for them to entertain themselves at home. Order puzzles, games or movies on DVD from online stores.
  • Whether they live with you or not, remember that one of the best ways to protect them is to follow physical distancing guidelines such as staying 6 feet away and washing your hands often.

Pro tip: You now have the time to teach your parents how to use technology to connect with friends via video chat, order food via a mobile application, or to stay informed through reputable online news outlets. Embrace this time as an opportunity to update their skills.

Shelter in place — because it may help “flatten the curve”

The epidemic “curve” refers to the rapid spike in infections. The only way to stop the spread and flatten the curve is to stop exposure. If fewer people go out and expose the virus to others, fewer people will get sick. Over time, the infection rate will slow down (flatten) and decrease. While protecting other humans and yourself against getting the virus is super important, the other real benefit of staying home is to keep hospitals and clinics from becoming overwhelmed with sick patients.

When followed closely, sheltering in place can help our country get to a place of healing and wellbeing. We encourage you to do your part. Help us help the rest of us.



Find a Doctor

If you feel unwell and would like to consult your doctor, consider using telemedicine options. Swedish Express Care Virtual connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory to search for one in your area.

You can also learn how Washington state is responding to the situation.

Related resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

World Health Organization

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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