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Learning the Vocabulary of COVID-19 Public Health Orders
Learning the Vocabulary of COVID-19 Public Health Orders

Confused on what your new "stay-at-home" order means? You aren't the only one.

ERISAfire Admin avatar
Written by ERISAfire Admin
Updated over a week ago

With millions of Americans under some kind of restrictions to daily life, COVID-19 is transforming daily life for all of us for the foreseeable future. These restrictions are being called so many different names it feels like we’ve adopted a whole new vocabulary to describe this unprecedented time. But what do these terms actually mean, and how will they affect your clients? We’ll break these terms down for you below. 


When someone tells you they’re under quarantine, it means they’ve potentially been exposed to coronavirus, so they’re staying put for 14 days to ensure they don’t have any symptoms. Even if you haven’t been contacted by public health officials, if you think there’s a chance you’ve been exposed, it’s a good idea to self-quarantine. 

Federal, state and local governments can (and have been) ordering quarantines, and in most cases, breaking a quarantine order is a criminal misdemeanor. The authority for an order like this comes from a broad function called “police power,” in which the federal government and states are given the ability to regulate behavior and enforce order to protect the country and its population from threats to public health and safety. 


Before the coronavirus crisis, “shelter-in-place” usually referred to a short-term situation where people were ordered to stay indoors until given permission to leave by authorities, usually in response to severe weather. The definition has changed somewhat given recent events. A shelter-in-place order is not just a strong suggestion from your local or state public health agency, but a legal order that can have consequences like fines or even prison time. 


At least 17 states and many localities have issued stay at home orders. While this is very similar to a shelter-in-place order, many have carved out “essential” businesses and services that can remain in operation. California, for example, has allowed banks, grocery stores, and other critical businesses to stay open. What is deemed “essential” varies state-by-state, though, so your best bet is to look at the actual order to determine what’s allowed and what’s not. At the time of this writing, at least 75 million Americans are under some kind of stay-at-home order.

Isolation Order

Isolation separates people with confirmed or probable infections from those who are not sick, so that they can recover without infecting others. One member of a household could be in isolation—confined to a bedroom, for example, while the other members of the household are in quarantine—free to move about the house so long as they do not enter the isolation area. Like a quarantine, isolation can be self-imposed, but it can also be ordered and enforced by local, state or federal public health authorities. 


If someone self-quarantines, it means the person is voluntarily isolating him/herself. The level of isolation is entirely up to the individual, and there's no legal consequence for breaking a self-quarantine or decreasing the level of isolation (e.g., deciding to run a few errands or going to a public park to exercise).

What does all this mean for employers?

While many, if not all of these terms, are often used interchangeably, it’s important for employers to find out from their employees exactly what kind of public health order they’re subject to as this can affect their eligibility for paid sick leave.

What about FFCRA leave?

Employers who are subject to the recently-passed Families First Coronavirus Response Act should ask employees for documentation in support of their paid sick leave request. For employees to be eligible for paid leave under the FFCRA, they must experience one of the following:

  • The employee is ordered by a governmental entity into quarantine or isolation

  • The employee is advised by a doctor or other health care provider to self-quarantine

  • The employee exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis

  • The employee is caring for someone who is subject to a government quarantine or isolation order or has been advised by a health care provider to quarantine or self-isolate

  • The employee needs to care for a child whose school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19 precautions

  • The employee is experiencing substantially similar conditions as specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services

Importantly, a self-quarantine that is recommended by a health care provider is a valid reason to take FFCRA sick/quarantine leave, but a persons' self-quarantine in absence of a doctor's recommendation or order is not.

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