Current Affairs

“Shelter in Place”: Does It Mean Zombies Are Attacking? An Analysis

Social distancing, people

The other day I saw Jake Tapper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta griping about images of people out walking and jogging along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and while the current crisis demands action I did think this segment was a little over the top. I have also seen concern expressed on Twitter (and of course I take all concerns expressed on Twitter very seriously), and even some fear, because of the use of the term “shelter in place” to describe the San Francisco order. Because other cities and states are adopting similar orders, sometimes using the same term, and because I live in San Francisco, I thought it might be helpful to briefly address the situation here.

Does “shelter in place” mean we are taking the situation very seriously, closing businesses, and avoiding unnecessary contact?

It does.

Does it mean we are all cowering in bunkers ready to open fire on anything that comes within 50 yards and looks like a coronavirus, or that we don’t step outside our doors for fear we might pull back a stump gnawed by a ravening horde of zombies?

It does not.

Here (and below) is the actual “shelter in place” order issued by the SF Department of Public Health on March 16. The first thing to note is that the title isn’t actually “Shelter in Place,” or at least not just “Shelter in Place.” No, it’s this:

ORDER OF THE HEALTH OFFICER OF THE CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO DIRECTING ALL INDIVIDUALS LIVING IN THE COUNTY TO SHELTER AT THEIR
PLACE OF RESIDENCE EXCEPT THAT THEY MAY LEAVE TO PROVIDE OR RECEIVE CERTAIN ESSENTIAL SERVICES OR ENGAGE IN CERTAIN ESSENTIAL ACTIVITIES AND WORK FOR ESSENTIAL BUSINESS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES; EXEMPTING INDIVIDUALS EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS FROM THE SHELTER IN PLACE ORDER BUT URGING THEM TO FIND SHELTER AND GOVERNMENT AGENCIES TO PROVIDE IT; DIRECTING ALL BUSINESSES AND GOVERNMENTAL AGENCIES TO CEASE NONESSENTIAL OPERATIONS AT PHYSICAL LOCATIONS IN THE COUNTY; PROHIBITING ALL NON-ESSENTIAL GATHERINGS OF ANY NUMBER OF INDIVIDUALS; AND ORDERING CESSATION OF ALL NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL

(SHELTER IN PLACE)

We just call it “Shelter in Place” for short.

Ordinarily, this is the point at which I would make fun of the drafter for insisting on using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS in a title that is 110 words long (and for drafting a title that is 110 words long). But due to the ongoing national emergency, I am hereby suspending that policy until the crisis has passed, or until the end of this post, whichever comes first.

The next paragraph asks that we “read this Order carefully” (normal policy of criticizing unnecessary capital letters also suspended) and says that violating it “is a misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.” Yep. It is. You know what else is a misdemeanor in California? Allowing a minor to play bingo, putting a false mark on a log, and willfully picking a flower growing on any county right of way, so can we not completely freak out about this? I mean, smoking marijuana is also illegal here, you know. And yet.

Anyway, the order requires everyone in SF “to shelter in place—that is, stay at home—except for certain essential activities and work,” until April 7. I suppose if they had called it the “stay at home” order, it might not have had the desired effect, but the fact remains that this is not as draconian as “shelter in place” may sound to some. I absolutely don’t mean to minimize the effects on businesses and their workers—bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and gyms are all closed, for example—but citizens are not locked in their homes or being rounded up if they leave.

The order goes on to say, of course, that the intent is to have people stay home “to the maximum extent feasible, while enabling essential services to continue….” Here’s the key, though: “All persons may leave their residences only for Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, or to operate Essential Businesses, all as defined in Section 10.”

Section 10 is five pages long.

People can go out to get supplies, including supplies they need to work at home; to deliver necessary services or supplies to others; to care for family members or pets; to work at Essential Businesses (normal policy suspended); or, contrary to CNN’s implication, to “engage in outdoor activity” like walking or running, provided you don’t get too close to others. This is what the people shown on the Embarcadero were doing, basically; they certainly weren’t packed together in a big group. “Essential Businesses” include grocery stores, hardware stores, gas stations, banks, broadcasting services, laundromats, restaurants (for delivery or carry out), transportation services necessary to essential activities, and so on. Even lawyers are essential—well, legal services are, if “necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities,” which a lawyer could probably argue is a pretty broad exception. Necessary travel is also permitted, as you would expect. So, in short, you can do stuff you need to do while “sheltering in place.”

Oh, I should also have mentioned that the county has recently clarified that marijuana dispensaries are also Essential Businesses. But then those are of course only used by people who need that herb for medical reasons.

Obviously, you should not do stuff you don’t need to do while sheltering in place. That’s the whole point. Do your part. Stay home unless necessary. Don’t hoard stuff. Help your neighbors if they need it. Go jogging if you are one of those maniacs. Jog to a marijuana dispensary if you must. But in general, stay home. If calling this “shelter in place” helped startle people into doing that—and it does seem to have helped—then that’s a good thing. But “stay at home, dummy, with exceptions” is probably a better description.