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Shelter in Place: The Ins and Outs of What it Really Means

Last Updated: March 26, 2020 10:35am

An increasingly common step for many government leaders hoping to curtail the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in their regions is ordering residents to stay inside, except when performing “essential” business. The name of the order varies according to region – “shelter-in-place” is likely the most recognizable – but the overall intent is the same: Don’t leave your home unless you absolutely have to, and even then, think twice.  

In Washington state, where COVID-19 cases have topped 2,200 and deaths resulting from the virus are now well into the triple digits, adoption of a measure keeping residents inside their home felt like an inevitability for days. It became a reality on March 23. That evening, Governor Inslee issued a two-week, statewide “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that went into effect immediately.

Washington’s order added the state to a growing list of other states, cities and counties already requiring their residents to shelter in place. Most notably, California placed indefinite shelter-in-place orders on all its 40 million residents on March 19. The governors of both New York and Illinois followed suit and issued similar restrictions the following morning.

In addition to Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Idaho are other states in the Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific region currently under stay-at-home orders. Select cities and counties in Alaska (Anchorage) are also under those directives. Montana does not currently have any government-mandated restrictions in place, but there are calls to change that soon.

The introduction of stay-at-home directives in these areas serve as a preview of how things may play out in other territories on the verge of sheltering in place. From a business perspective, the impact largely depends on the “essential” versus “non-essential” designation. Only essential businesses are permitted to operate during a shelter-in-place scenario, and those determinations are made almost exclusively by the officials issuing the order.

In California, businesses deemed necessary include predictable operations such as health care facilities, grocery stores and others the public relies on for day-to-day life, as well as less conventional storefronts like marijuana dispensaries. Illinois classified hardware and supplies stores within their definition of essential. Washington’s order is a little more by the numbers, primarily allowing businesses in the infrastructure and health sectors to continue operation.

So, then what about non-essential businesses? In most cases, that category includes businesses where consumers gather for social or recreational purposes. New York lists malls, movie theaters, gyms, auditoriums, casinos and all types of sporting events as not being essential. Most retailers fall into that category as well.

If your business leans more toward non-essential than essential, compliance with shelter-in-place orders isn’t a recommendation. Many states are issuing a misdemeanor accompanied by a fine to businesses owners who do not comply with the increased restrictions. Maryland announced the closure of its state’s non-essential businesses earlier this week. The consequences for businesses not adhering to their governor’s order results in a $5,000 penalty, one-year imprisonment or both.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that non-essential businesses are not being told to shut down completely under these orders; just close their in-person locations. Customers still need to connect with products and services when they’re confined to their homes. Businesses are being asked to reformat how they operate in order to meet those needs.

For every type of business, trust-filled communication is a key function for surviving during a shelter-in-place scenario. From emails to social media posts, share regular updates on how current events are impacting timelines and products. Establish clear expectations for how your business is rising to the occasion during an increasingly trying time for both sides of the marketplace.

And unfortunately, right now, rising to the occasion means totally reformatting important elements of your business. Remote work is your new everyday reality. As you schedule check-ins with employees and more heavily rely on technology to interact, be prepared to support your staff and manage your time differently than you may have done in the past.

The same goes for how you access customers, too. Opportunities to innovate are especially important right now. If your business relied on customers picking up your products, a shelter-in-place period may be the time switch to a more delivery-based model. Those in-home consultations you previously relied may need to be substituted with FaceTime call. The alternatives may not always be ideal but working remotely often requires a reliance on finding workarounds.

More than 160 million Americans in 17 states are already being urged by their government officials to stay home – a number that’s expected to grow in the coming days. Regardless of anyone’s definition of “essential,” your business should be playing a vital role in navigating customers through those circumstances.

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Written by Ben Spradling

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