Social distance, stay-at-home directives, self-quarantine, or self-isolation? How to determine which recommendation to follow

Almost overnight, social distancing, quarantining, and self-isolating have become buzzwords, verbs, and hashtags with millions of followers. But with their new celebrity-like status comes some confusion. The words aren’t interchangeable, and each concept should be applied differently depending on your unique situation and risk factors.

Here’s some clarity on each recommendation:

Social distancing

Social distancing is where the six-feet of space rule applies. Social distancing means deliberately creating physical space between yourself and others to avoid spreading or catching COVID-19. Social distancing is the first step in flattening the curve, which is why sporting events, concerts, and other social gatherings have been cancelled or postponed. In most venues, it’s impossible to remain six feet apart from others, so cancellation is a requirement that protects public health. Social distancing is also why so many of us are working from home, why schools have moved online, connections with friends are now via FaceTime, and gathering with people outside of your household is not recommended.

Stay-at-home order

A stay-at-home order means, stay home. Only go out for necessary items like food and medical care. Most retail stores and offices will be closed until the order is lifted. While essential businesses will be allowed to remain open like grocery stores, banks, hardware stores, post offices, essential transportation, senior care facilities, farming operations and media outlets, everyone else should stay home as much as possible. Restaurants offering curbside or delivery options also remain open. You can still go outside under a stay-at-home order – do yard work, go on a hike, but be responsible and practice social distancing.


For those who may have been exposed to or are at risk of COVID-19, self-quarantining for 14 days is the recommendation. This might include those who have recently traveled, have been in contact with a person they now know is infected, or those who were perhaps initially a bit resistant to the idea of social distancing. Self-quarantining means staying at home and remaining at least six feet away from others in your household. If you may have been exposed to COVID-19, don’t share any items with others. Have your own set of towels, utensils, and a separate area in your house if possible. A no-visitors policy and frequent handwashing are also required. After two weeks, if you don’t have symptoms, it’s possible to return to your normal routine — which may be simply a return to social distancing. Be sure to check the latest recommendations from your local health department.


Isolation serves the same purpose as a quarantine, but it’s reserved for people who are already sick and designed to keep infected people away from those who aren’t infected. Isolation is appropriate for those who have tested positive for COVID-19, or who have symptoms but haven’t yet been tested. Self-isolation means staying indoors and eliminating all contact with others, using a separate bedroom or bathroom if possible, and not leaving your home except to get medical care (in which case, you should call ahead first). The decision between at-home isolation and hospital care is made on a case-by-case by medical professionals. For those who are admitted to a hospital, special personal protective equipment will be used by medical personnel.

No matter which stage you’re in, remember these recommendations are in place to help you and those around you. Humans are social beings, and while following these guidelines may be difficult, it’s also necessary. It’s important for everyone to do their part, take precautions, follow the advice of public health experts, and flatten the curve.