Under a stay-at-home order, can I go visit a family member?

Stay-at-home orders don't bar you from ever leaving your house. But it can be difficult to know what activities are OK and which aren't...
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Most states have issued orders asking residents to stay home, unless absolutely necessary.Elaine Thompson / AP

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By Maura Hohman

Since the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. in February, the federal government and state authorities alike have asked residents only to leave their homes if necessary. At last count, all but five states have issued lockdown orders, NBC News reports.

These stay-at-home directives — which vary by state but generally permit seeking health care, grocery shopping, picking up medicine, caring for loved ones and outdoor exercise — have been met with mixed results across the country.

When Floridians and tourists continued to hang out on beaches in late March, local officials had to close them down. Last week police in New Jersey broke up a house party of 47 people in a small apartment.

People are also continuing with other less obviously risky behaviors, such as visiting family and meeting friends outdoors. So what activities are OK during the coronavirus outbreak, and which are dangerous?

Here Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, answered common questions about stay-at-home orders.

Can you visit a friend or family member in their home?

In general, the answer is no, Schaffner told TODAY.

Even if you and your loved one aren't exhibiting symptoms, you've all been diligently quarantining and you maintain social distance, this guidance doesn't change.

Can you visit a loved one who needs help?

If you're a necessary caregiver for someone and are providing a service that can't be done virtually, like dropping off groceries, then this is acceptable. But, Schaffner clarified, you should "minimize interpersonal interactions."

For example, he recommended calling ahead to tell the person you're coming, dropping off the groceries, saying hi from outside and a distance of 6 to 8 feet, then leaving. If your loved one is unable to unpack the groceries alone, then ask the individual to go in a separate room while you do it.

Any social interactions that can be done via FaceTime or telephone should be done that way.

Can you have someone who doesn't have coronavirus symptoms to your home?

Again, unless you need the help, the answer is no.

"This is not the time to go visiting people," Schaffner said.

Can you gather outside?

Groups larger than two people should not be gathering — and this includes outside.

If you want to go for a walk or another outdoor activity with someone you are not isolating with, that's OK as long as you can keep a distance of 6 feet, according to Schaffner. Going for a walk with people you are isolating with is fine, but keep a 6 feet distance from other people.

"Don't jog right next to each other the way you used to ... and let's not prolong it," he added. "If (you) go for a walk together and then usually sit down and have a cup of coffee ... Go for your walk, be a bit more distant and then (say), 'I'm sorry, we're not going to have the cup of coffee because that's really not necessary for now."

With stay-at-home orders in place for weeks on end, you might want to justify why certain behaviors are safe. But don't.

As Schaffner explained it, "Every time somebody wants to make an exception ... We in medicine and public health look at them and say, 'Really? No. What is it about 'no' that you don't understand?'"

Stay-at-home orders mean what they say: Unless you're performing an essential service, don't go out.

"It's not 'kind of stay at home' or 'stay at home light,'" Schaffner stressed. "This is the real thing."