Quarantine, Isolation and Stay at Home Orders: What These Terms Mean and Why They’re Different

Apr 10, 2020 | COVID-19, GTM Blog, Household Employee Management

quarantine isolation stay-at-home

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us a new vocabulary with terms like quarantine, isolation, stay at home, and more now becoming part of our everyday language. However, they’re often interchanged, which can cause confusion. Here’s why it’s important to know the differences.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us a new vocabulary with terms like quarantine, isolation, stay at home, shelter in place, and more now becoming part of our everyday language.

While each of these terms has a specific – and often legal – meaning,  they are frequently interchanged, which can cause confusion.

We’ll break down what each of these words and phrases mean and why it’s important to understand the differences.


If someone may have been exposed to the coronavirus, they will likely be asked to quarantine at home to restrict their movements and limit the spread of the virus through contact. You could appear to be healthy and still be asked or ordered to quarantine because you recently traveled or had been in contact with a person known to be infected.

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Quarantine is used to keep someone who might have been exposed to COVID-19 away from others. Someone in self-quarantine stays separated from others, and they limit movement outside of their home or current place. A person may have been exposed to the virus without knowing it (for example, when traveling or out in the community), or they could have the virus without feeling symptoms. Quarantine helps limit further spread of COVID-19.

When you’re quarantined, you stay at home and remain at least six feet away from others in your household. Don’t share items like towels and utensils, wear a face mask when around others and try to use a separate bathroom.

For this health crisis, a quarantine could last 14 days. Those who don’t test positive for the virus after their quarantine may no longer need to be in a contained environment.

You may be advised by a health care professional to self-quarantine due to coronavirus concerns.

Some states have ordered individuals to self-quarantine if they arrive from a different state. For example, in Rhode Island, anyone (with a few exceptions) arriving by plane or from New York by car, train or bus must self-quarantine for 14 days. In Hawaii, anyone arriving in the state – whether there are visitors or returning residents – are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Why is this important?

If you can’t go to work because a health care professional advised you to self-quarantine or you need to be quarantined by a federal, state or local order, you may be eligible for paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

Also, you could receive paid leave if you’re caring for someone who is quarantined by the direction of a health care professional or subject to quarantine or isolation by a federal, state or local order.


Isolation is like a quarantine but is for people who actually have been infected with the virus or may be showing symptoms and haven’t been tested yet. It serves the same purpose as a quarantine – to keep sick people away from those who are healthy.

As with a quarantine, those in isolation should keep away from other people as much as possible and follow similar guidelines for shared items and other precautions.

According to the CDC:

Isolation is used to separate sick people from healthy people. People who are in isolation should stay home. In the home, anyone sick should separate themselves from others by staying in a specific “sick” bedroom or space and using a different bathroom (if possible).

A health professional may recommend isolation if the person isn’t suffering from symptoms serious enough to require hospitalization.

This is a helpful fact sheet from the CDC (PDF) on actions to take when in isolation.

Why is this important?

As with a quarantine, if you can’t go to work because you’re sick or symptomatic and being isolated, you may be eligible for paid sick leave under FFCRA.

Also, you could receive paid leave if you’re caring for someone who is sick or symptomatic and being isolated.

Stay at home/Shelter in place orders

Although they have distinct meanings, “shelter in place” and “stay at home” have been used interchangeably during this health crisis.

Millions of people in more than 40 states have been ordered to “stay at home.” That means they should stay at home as much as possible leaving only for food, gas, and other essentials or for medical reasons. You can go out for a walk or be outside but you should keep six feet apart from others.

A “stay-at-home” order could last weeks and be extended as needed.

A “shelter in place” order, on the other hand, is typically used for short-term situations when people are asked to stay indoors until authorities say that it’s safe. They might be issued if there is a chemical or radiological event, an active shooter, or natural threats like a tornado. Sometimes a “shelter-in-place” order is called a lockdown especially when it’s for an active shooter.

Under a “stay-at-home” order, many nonessential businesses, like retail stores, gyms, bars, and movie theaters, are required to be closed. Essential businesses including take-out restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, and health care providers remain open. Public transportation also remains open.

“Stay-at-home” orders vary by state and local jurisdiction.

At this time, the states without “stay-at-home” directives include Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Why is this important?

A “stay-at-home” order is not the same as a quarantine or being in isolation.

Unlike a quarantine or isolation, a “stay-at-home” order doesn’t necessarily qualify you for paid sick or family leave. Many healthy people are under “stay-at-home” directives.

You may not be able to go to work – or have your hours reduced – under a “stay-at-home” order. In this case, you could apply for unemployment benefits.

Essential employees

As mentioned, some services are deemed “essential” and will remain available during a “stay-at-home” order. Employees can also be considered “essential.” These workers may include doctors, first responders, those who work for essential businesses, and others.

Why is this important?

An in-home childcare provider for a family whose parent(s) are/is considered essential and must go to jobs outside of their home (like doctors, nurses, and police officers) may still be able to report for work.

Even if you aren’t considered essential, childcare services may be considered essential. In this case, a nanny could be caring for children while the parents are working from home.

It’s important to check your state’s “stay-at-home” directive to understand what is and isn’t considered essential and if your employee can work in your home.

GTM can help

If you’re a client of GTM Payroll Services and need further assistance on the benefits available to you and your employee, call (800) 929-9213 and talk with our client support team. Not a GTM client? Get a free, no-obligation consultation with a household employment expert and see how GTM can make household payroll and taxes easy for you including how to get tax credits through the FFCRA.

Download The Complete Guide to Household Payroll

Get our complimentary guide and learn everything you need to know about paying your employees legally and filing your taxes the right way.

Free Consultation

On your household

Learn More



Free Consultation

On your household

Learn More

Subscribe to our Blog

The weekly Household Employer Digest delivered to your inbox.

Learn more and subscribe.

Get a Free Consultation

Get help from our experts on how to manage your household tax and payroll.

Call Today!

Mon – Fri 8:30 am – 8 pm ET

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This