Coronavirus: Will ‘shelter in place’ happen in Florida? And what does that mean?

Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want Florida on lockdown. Others say he should make the move.
A desolate Clearwater Beach on Saturday March 21, 2020- a day after a county wide shutdown of all beaches due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A desolate Clearwater Beach on Saturday March 21, 2020- a day after a county wide shutdown of all beaches due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published March 23, 2020|Updated March 23, 2020

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Will Florida be locked down? If so, when? As of Monday afternoon, the answer was still unclear. As cities and states across the country have issued “shelter in place” or “stay at home” mandates, Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed back on those efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus.

He pointed to New York where, he said, a “huge amount” of residents have been fleeing — and flying to Florida.

“If you look at what happened in New York, when they did the stay at home order, what did people do?” DeSantis said. “Well, a lot of people fled the city."

But some public health officials have said that a stay-at-home order is the only way to keep the crisis from getting out of hand and overwhelming the American health care system.

“If this governor will not act, the responsibility will fall on our local leaders to take regional action to address this crisis before it’s too late,” Dr. Mona V. Mangat, a St. Petersburg-based allergist and immunologist, wrote in a Tampa Bay Times column published Monday.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman advocated Monday for a statewide stay-at-home order and suggested the city might implement one if the state doesn’t. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Saturday that if DeSantis doesn’t issue a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, Hillsborough County officials may implement one.

As of early Monday afternoon, 12 states had issued statewide stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and West Virginia

Here’s what could be coming our way, with California’s new rules as our reference. We’re waiting to hear more from local leaders.

Is Florida requiring shelter in place?

As of the afternoon of March 23, not yet. That said, last week brought a statewide tightening of activities. Gyms had to close, and restaurants had to limit service to takeout and delivery.

We know some local authorities, such as Pinellas County leaders, are weighing this option, but they said it was premature to discuss what it might look like here.

“We are recommending people to stay at home now if at all possible,” said Josh Boatwright, a spokesman for Pinellas County.

What does shelter in place mean?

Stay at home. Don’t leave unless you have to. No gatherings.

California released a list of approved activities, “essential business” and travel, but those are to be kept to a minimum. Florida would likely do the same.

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What does that mean compared to social distancing?

It’s stricter. The practice of social distancing (staying 6 feet away from people not in your household) remains key to slowing the rate of infections and reducing the burden on the health care system. This is a way of enforcing residents to stay home and reduce contact.

What else do we know about California’s rules?

Here’s what’s open in California, per the state’s coronavirus site:

  • Gas stations
  • Pharmacies
  • Grocery stores, farmer’s markets, food banks, convenience stores, take-out and delivery restaurants
  • Banks
  • Laundromats
  • Essential government functions, such as law enforcement and government services


  • Dine-in restaurants
  • Bars and nightclubs
  • Entertainment venues
  • Gyms and fitness studios
  • Public events and gatherings
  • Convention centers

What does that mean for my day-to-day life?

According to California’s guidelines:

  • If you work at an essential business (mostly in health, food, government, supplies and media), you can keep going.
  • Non-essential businesses can do “minimum basic operations,” to keep the companies afloat (Employees can continue to work remotely).
  • Mail and deliveries will keep coming. Drugstores and medical supply stores will stay open, but try to arrange for mail-order.
  • Media outlets will keep bringing you news.
  • Visitations to loved ones in medical or care facilities are not allowed, unless essential.
  • No visiting friends or family unless you have an urgent need or are performing an essential activity. If you are providing care, be exceedingly cautious.
  • Don’t hoard groceries. Buy on your usual schedule.
  • Places that provide free or reduced-priced food, such as soup kitchens and food banks, are being encouraged to offer take-away food.
  • No church.
  • Avoid playgrounds.
  • You can walk the dog and go out for a jog or bike ride in the park, but keep your distance. (Though the order says no non-essential travel by foot or bike, exercise is OK if you follow social distancing.)
  • Try to postpone non-essential medical care like teeth cleaning and eye exams.
  • Court-ordered travel, such as a visit with children, is OK. So is travel by law enforcement.
  • Keep washing your hands. Disinfect surfaces. If you or a family member is sick, call a doctor, a nurse hotline or urgent care center. Stay away from the emergency room unless you are having an actual emergency.

Really, most of this won’t come as a major adjustment to people who have been practicing social distancing.

When does it end?

There is no end date in California yet.

What if you don’t follow the rules?

It’s a misdemeanor.

Can they do that?

It’s been established that state and local governments have some quarantine authority, said Lindsay Wiley, a professor at American University Washington College of Law, where she specializes in public health law and ethics. But the U.S. Supreme Court has never articulated the scope of state and local governments’ powers in these situations.

That may be because modern courts haven’t had to deal with issues like the ones posed by coronavirus. Local and state governments have used shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders in limited-duration emergencies, such as hurricanes or other natural disasters, Wiley said. But it’s been a long time since Americans faced a shelter-in-place order that could last weeks or months.

In modern American history, she said, "these orders are definitely without precedent. You have to look back to more than 100 years ago to a time period when cities were dealing with periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague or cholera to find anything similar.”

Applying those rules to businesses and events mirrors other local law, Wiley said — shutting down an event that violates quarantine orders is similar to a fire marshal stopping an overcrowded event. It’s trickier with individuals. From what she’s heard from states with shelter-in-place orders in effect, law enforcement officers are trying to educate violators on their errors first rather than arrest or cite them.

She expects that some people will sue, citing freedom of movement, if they’re told to stay at home for a long time. But she said courts could allow the orders to stand as long as public officials show that they’re working toward public health measures that would allow them to narrow the scope of the quarantine.

“It’s important to understand that our constitutionally protected civil liberties are not all or nothing — they’re not absolute," she said. “The courts balance our rights against pressing collective needs.”

I’m selling my house and/or moving. Am I out of luck?

It depends on how the order is worded. Illinois’s list of essential businesses includes real estate, appraisal and title services, and Ohio’s includes similar language. Ohio’s list also includes “moving and relocation services.” California’s list doesn’t explicitly include those businesses, but it does allow for some financial services to remain open.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

STORES REACT TO VIRUS: Some businesses adjust hours or announce temporary closings.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

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