CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County has issued a "stay at home" order effective March 26 to April 16.

The decision is an attempt to limit gatherings of people and cull the spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19. Mecklenburg County currently has 127 positive cases of COVID-19.

But the decision has some asking, what's the difference between this order and the social distancing guidelines Mecklenburg County urged people to follow previously? How is a stay at home order different than an order to shelter in place?

THE QUESTION

What's the difference between social distancing and a stay at home order? What about a stay at home order versus a shelter in place order?

THE ANSWER

A stay at home order is a "stricter form of social distancing" according to the county. It also can be enforced.

Orders to shelter in place and stay at home don't have definitions in state law, but the scenarios in which they are used differ slightly.

WHAT WE FOUND

At the bottom of their stay at home order summary page, Mecklenburg County tackled the difference between social distancing and a stay at home order. They said it's a stricter form of social distancing and then defined what a stay at home order means.

Mecklenburg County says a stay at home order means you should stay home except for essential services. They also say you should maintain six feet of separation from others and avoid large groups, both of which are common guidelines for social distancing.

Another difference is that a stay at home order is enforceable. CMPD said that while they encourage voluntary cooperation, they have the authority to issue citations and/or make misdemeanor arrests if voluntary cooperation fails.

So how does this order differ from a shelter in place order? That was covered in Mecklenburg County's meeting Tuesday.

Deputy Director of Emergency Management Robert Graham said a shelter in place typically urges people to stay inside whatever building they currently are in and seek shelter immediately.

"For us, in Mecklenburg County, a shelter in place order is typically a matter of a few hours until we can handle that emergency," he said.

He said they avoided using that language to avoid confusion associated with how shelter in place orders are typically used.

County Attorney Tyrone Wade added that "shelter in place" is not defined in North Carolina law. There are laws that give the county the power to make orders such as shelter in place or stay at home, but not a single law that uses that language.

Mecklenburg County and CMPD are urging people with questions on the order to call the Mecklenburg County Stay at Home Order Call Center at 704-353-1926.

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The state of North Carolina has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 866-462-3821 or read the frequently asked questions.  In South Carolina, for general questions about the coronavirus, call the DHEC Care Line 1-855-472-3432. Staff are answering calls 8 a.m.-6 p.m. every day.