Quarantine. Lockdown. Self-Isolation. Safer at Home. Shelter in Place. Why are they so different? What do they mean?
Most of us started off 2020 with aspirations and high hopes for what 2020 would look like. If you went by what you saw on social media, many were not fans of 2019, and were ready to bid it adieu. Little did the world, especially those of us comfortably ensconced in bliss in the United States, know of the havoc a novel virus called COVID-19 (or the Coronavirus) had in store for the world. A quarantine the evokes much less hope, and more similarities to martial law.
Prior to COVID-19 wreaking global havoc, the closest thing that I had even seen to something like this was in the film Contagion. A film which came out nearly a decade ago, but is also used in pandemic lectures. Then a new novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China at the end of last year. The end of the decade. Now the word pandemic is not only a common phrase we are using in our everyday life, but those lives have been altered. It has come along with social distancing, a plummeting economy, alternating theories of “flattening the curve” and the best way to do so.
One of the most confusing ways of navigating this new pandemic is understanding the terminology of it all. The different measures that are being taken, and by whom, where, and when, to avoid spreading the virus. Since they vary so vastly both in location and enforcement, and are ever evolving; here are the most common ones that I have come across.
In some other contexts there are important differences between a lockdown and a shelter-in-place order, though the basic idea is similar. They are orders to stay inside a certain building. A lockdown, however, is used to describe a situational response to something like an active shooter. While a shelter-in-place is usually in response to natural or environmental threats, like a tornado or a chemical spill. It’s a distinction that’s blurred in the context of COVID-19. The two terms are often used interchangeably. The shelter-in-place measures adopted in California, France, Italy, and elsewhere are frequently described as lockdowns.
A shelter-in-place order has previously been used with authorities asking the public to seek protection from natural disasters or outside threats, by remaining in their homes. These are legal orders with the potential for fines or imprisonment if they are violated. Not just strong suggestions from public health agencies as many would like to believe.
In the United States to date, only two states have adopted such measures. California announced a shelter-in-place rule, in the form of an executive order issued by Governor Newsom on March 19. New York’s Governor Cuomo announced a similar though slightly more relaxed order that went into effect on Sunday, March 22. In both states, residents are now required to stay home with only limited exceptions. This include leaving to buy groceries, receive medical care, or go to work.
The softer sounding “stay at home” has been used by some public health agencies when discussing what are effectively “shelter in place” orders. The state of California opted to use “Safer at Home” to describe its statewide order of March 19. Not long after, Instagram incorporated a “Safer At Home” sticker for users to place on their stories. In doing this it allows users to see the accounts they follow showcased on their stories that use this sticker. Trying to provide an easier way to showcase what they are doing while they are sequestered.
In many areas that have experienced sizable outbreaks of the virus, all non-essential services have been ordered to close temporarily. That means retail, gyms, hotels, restaurants, and more. It raises the question of what qualifies as essential, as that can be quite subjective. Even the most restrictive measures typically exclude banks, gas stations, pharmacies, and grocery stores from mandatory closures.
Beyond that, what is essential varies between jurisdictions. In California, for example, essential services also include convenience stores, laundromats, and take-out restaurants, and law firms . Meanwhile in Europe, as theWashington Post reported, wine stores are considered essential in France. In Italy, it is newsstands.
Many State Department warnings advise against nonessential travel, and President Trump used the term “nonessential” when he announced the closing of the U.S.-Canada border in a tweet on March 18. Surprisingly, it’s a term that has yet to be defined precisely by the State Department. It provides no guidance regarding what is or isn’t essential when it comes to travel. Shockingly, it is left to individual travelers to decide what family, business, or personal matters are so urgent that they would justify not heeding the advice to remain home. It’s a scary thought that with a novel virus with no vaccination in sight, that determination is left to people who do not see eye-to-eye on what justifies essential travel.
Because of the relatively long incubation period for COVID-19, anyone who may have been exposed to someone who tested positive for the virus, or who traveled to an area of the world where there’s an active outbreak may be asked to quarantine themselves and avoid contact with all other people, typically for 14 days. If that period passes without any signs of symptoms, it’s considered safe to assume the person quarantined wasn’t infected. Currently the CDC recommends quarantining for travelers arriving into the U.S. (or returning) from 30 European countries (the Schengen area as well as Ireland and the United Kingdom), China, Iran, Malaysia, and South Korea.
If someone is found positive for COVID-19 but isn’t suffering from symptoms serious enough to require hospitalization, doctors recommend patients to isolate in their own home. Avoiding all contact with other people except for those whom they reside. The CDC has a helpful one-page download of the measures that someone who’s self isolating should take. These include wearing a face mask and gloves whenever they’re in contact with any other person or in public, and continuing to monitor their symptoms.
Social distancing is a measure intended to be followed by people who haven’t had any known exposure to COVID-19. It is meant to slow the transmission of the virus. The practice of social distancing can be boiled down to avoiding physical contact with, or even proximity to, other people. Social distancing protects the person practicing it from the possibility of infection, while also protecting the public in situations where someone is unknowingly carrying the virus. A perfect example would be someone who is contagious but showing no symptoms.
At its most basic level, social distancing requires avoiding large events from concerts to conferences, where the risk of exposure is greatest. Though that risk may be somewhat lower at small gatherings and at bars and restaurants, it still remains. Most states have banned any gatherings larger than 20 people. Churches and places of worship have been closed, as well as concert tours and music festivals cancelled. This has led to more than 20 states (so far) ordering complete or partial closures of restaurants. In many states however, take-out and delivery is still allowed.
At its most extreme, and therefore most effective, social distancing requires staying at home as much as possible and limiting contact to those who share the same living space. When it is necessary to go outside, most authorities advise keeping a six-foot distance from other people. A couple of days ago, New York City issued a two-page statement when it comes to social distancing and sex. It suggested solo masturbation above all else, but even went as far to recommend having sex only with those whom you have self-quarantined with.
While many, including myself, are concerned with the isolation that can result from social distancing. The hope is that while there is an emphasis on physical distancing, it will drive people to maintain social contact through other technological means. Including texts, phone calls, social media, FaceTime, and other forms of communication. This is especially important for those who suffer from mental disorders that isolation only worsens. Maintaining contact with friends, loved ones, and even colleagues is essential to attempt to avoiding feelings of loneliness and isolation during these unprecedented times.
WHAT THIS MEANS
While the world has seemingly come to a standstill, many are living in fear. Will they have jobs to return to? Will they be able to pay their bills, or feed their families? For now the best we can do is to follow the mandates that have been put in place. They were enacted for the safety of ourselves, our loved ones, and those around us. For the world to become open for business once more, we must first stop and listen.