Why ‘Shelter in Place’ and ‘Stay at Home’ Aren’t Exactly the Same


A friend of mine recently pointed out a problem with the phrase ‘shelter in place’ when it comes to the pandemic. It’s worth some thought.

What do you think about when you hear someone tell you to shelter in place?

The answer may depend on your age and how you communicate.

A friend of mine, who works as a public information officer, recently posted a message to journalists about using the phrase shelter in place about orders related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

I’m not going to share the link to his post for two reasons. First, he posted it on his personal profile, and I tend to be hesitant to publicly share someone’s profile. Second, he and I haven’t had enough time in the past couple of weeks for a chat during which I could ask permission.

In any case, he calls the phrase the “bane of my existence as a public information officer.”


The first reason involves the phrase’s Cold War history.

In the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, fears about a nuclear attack had people thinking of bomb and fallout shelters. They were designed to provide relative safety (if there were such a thing in that situation) for people to escape to at a moment’s notice. In some cases, people built them with supplies of food and water to last for a few weeks. Others were not so elaborately planned.

Well before that, we caught a glimpse of such a structure in one of the world’s most famous films. In 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, we see Dorothy trying unsuccessfully to reach the family’s storm cellar as an ominous tornado approaches:

In both cases, these “shelter in place” options refer to a fast-approaching calamity for which we may only have a few moments’ notice to prepare.

It’s not that the shelters are the best place to retreat to; it’s that they’re the safest place to reach in so short an amount of time.

In a pinch, you can reach that “safe space” when there’s nowhere else to go.

But that’s not the same situation we have during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a safe space: and it’s your own home.

The second reason involves translation.

I wouldn’t have thought about this. But my friend pointed out two issues involving language when “shelter in place” is translated.

My friend tells me that the best Spanish equivalent becomes, “Seek refuge in a building.”

That’s close, but not close enough. It’s not about finding safety in “a building.” It’s about finding safety in your home.

But for the hearing-impaired community, it gets even worse. We’ve all seen the American Sign Language interpreters working on the fly to translate messages from governors and other public officials. For the most skilled of these interpreters, it might be a bit easier to translate what officials mean instead of what they actually are saying.

“If a less-skilled ASL interpreter was on the dais, it could come out as “Stand exactly where you are” to the Deaf Community,” my friend writes.

That’s not the right message at all.

The best message remains the simplest one.

Flattening that infamous curve isn’t about “sheltering in place.” The strategy to protect yourself, your family and those around you is “stay at home.”

It’s a simpler message. It’s a clearer message.

And it says what everyone actually means.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.