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What does a shelter-in-place order actually look like?

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says it could be a future option. In the Bay Area, it's already been in effect.

Boylston Street, while not deserted, was oddly quiet with greatly reduced foot and vehicle traffic Wednesday. Lane Turner / The Boston Globe

Officials say there are no plans for a “shelter-in-place” order in Boston or Massachusetts in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Gov. Charlie Baker has repeatedly refuted the persistent unfounded rumors that a shelter-in-place order is looming on the horizon, as has Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who reiterated Wednesday that there is “no current plan to issue such an order on any particular date.”

But as the number of reported COVID-19 cases continues to steadily rise in Massachusetts, some local elected officials are calling for a shelter-in-place order. California became the first state in the nation to effectively do so Thursday night. And in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Walsh acknowledged it could be an option in the future in the Boston area.

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“I think it’s a question of when is the right time if it has to be done,” he said, adding that it “could be very realistic that it’s going to be an option.”

The concept evokes perhaps-alarming images of the type of lockdown enforced in parts of China to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. But as it has been carried out in the United States, how much different would a shelter-in-place order be compared to the rules already in effect in the Boston area?

“In terms of best practices, I don’t think it would be all that different,” says state Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat leading the calls for a statewide shelter-in-place order.

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Baker has already temporarily closed schools, banned public gatherings of over 25 people, and ordered restaurants to only offer takeout or delivery. Most child care programs will also close next week. In the Boston area, officials have shut down gyms, theaters, playgrounds, and non-emergency construction. As illustrated by drone footage in downtown Boston, the city’s streets are already stunningly empty as officials encourage residents to work from home.

Still, those social distancing guidelines aren’t being universally followed; Connolly says he still gets reports of crowded subway cars, constituents who are asked or feel pressured to go into work, and elderly people — who are most vulnerable to the highly contagious and potentially deadly disease — working at supermarkets,

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“The order to shelter in place will really send a clearer signal to people that unless you really have to be out and about interacting with other people, you really need to stay home,” he said. “And that’s for your own good and the safety of everyone else.”

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Connolly is among more than 30 local state and municipal lawmakers who want an order modeled after what has been implemented in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the parts of the country hit hardest by the pandemic. There, seven California counties issued a shelter-in-place order earlier this week, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom followed with a similar statewide order Thursday night. But that doesn’t mean the entire 40-million-person population of California will be stuck at home.

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As already implemented in the Bay Area, the order generally requires residents to stay home and businesses to close, but includes a number of exceptions for what’s considered “essential” needs and services. Those at “high risk of severe illness from COVID-19” are “urged” to only leave their homes for medical care.

For most individuals, that means you can still leave the house to get food, whether it be from a supermarket, a corner store, or a restaurant or cafe; just like in Massachusetts, they’re allowed to stay open for takeout and delivery.

Residents can also leave to go to the doctor (or dentist) or pick up drugs and other health care supplies (some counties have even allowed marijuana dispensaries to stay open, deeming cannabis an “essential medicine” for many residents). And while gyms and fitness centers were ordered to close, individuals are still allowed to go outside to walk, run, bike, or hike — as long as they stay at least six feet away from other people.

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Connolly says perhaps the biggest change has to do with “who is going to work.” The Bay Area’s shelter-in-place requires all nonessential businesses to “cease all activities at facilities.” In other words, those employees must work from home, if at all.

However, the order still allows people to go in from home for what is defined as essential businesses. The lengthy list includes health care and infrastructure workers; virtually anyone in the food supply chain, from farmers to grocery store cashiers to restaurant employees to delivery drivers; members of the media; gas station attendants; anyone involved with car shops or auto repair; hardware workers; child and home-care workers; plumbers; electricians; exterminators; laundry workers; school staff; shippers; bankers; lawyers; and accountants.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the extensive number of exceptions has led to some confusion about what businesses are and aren’t allowed to stay open; a boutique pet-grooming shop, for example, reportedly deemed itself essential and kept its doors open.

“We provide pet products and services that people need,” an employee at the shop, Bow Wow Meow, told the Times.

California Street, usually filled with cable cars, is seen empty Wednesday in San Francisco.

But the impacts of the order have been otherwise noticeable; photos this week showed normally bustling parts of San Francisco virtually empty (though beaches continued to attract decent crowds of people exercising and walking dogs). According to The Mercury News, the Bay Area’s traditional morning rush hour traffic has become “eerily nonexistent.”

The shelter-in-place order also bans any car travel that is not related to the aforementioned essential purposes, though police aren’t enforcing it as a primary offense and will largely refrain from issuing citations. There’s no traffic stops or shelter-in-place traps. San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told the Times that the public was being asked to voluntarily comply. While the order says failure to comply is punishable as a misdemeanor, Scott told the Times that it would be “an absolute last resort.”

“This is not about a criminal justice approach to a public health issue,” he said.

Travel on public transit is also allowed for the activities defined as essential.

That said, Connolly says all the flexibility of the order isn’t a reason to take advantage of it. While he acknowledges that it may be tough to cancel even small social gatherings and kids’ play dates, he argues that sheltering in place is “probably the fastest way to hopefully pull ourselves out of this.”

“The sooner we all do everything we can to stop the spread of the virus, the sooner we can flatten that curve and hopefully recover from this and get back to something approaching normal,” he said. “This doesn’t have to go on for months and months.”

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