What Are the Punishments for Violating a COVID-19 Stay-At-Home Order?


We’ve been hearing about stay-at-home orders and other quarantine measures for several months, but it still might be unclear what penalties can be imposed for violating one of these directives. That’s understandable because states and even some cities have their own rules and punishments. Increasingly, we see media reports about people who are no longer willing to abide by quarantine measures. Although some governments are lifting restrictions, many orders remain in place, so you should review the current rules and penalties in your area before you take any action.

To avoid a civil fine, know the rules in your community about what’s essential

Since state and local governments started imposing lockdowns to limit transmission of the coronavirus, there has been a great deal of discussion about which activities and businesses should be considered “essential” so as to justify waiving a stay-at-home order. Rules in different localities vary on these definitions and some state and local governments have modified their rules to accommodate particular industries and interests.

Activities such as shopping for groceries, going to the pharmacy, and seeking medical treatment will not lead to problems with law enforcement. But many other activities, including travel, may still be outlawed. In some communities, civil fines can run into the thousands of dollars, so it’s worthwhile to seek advice from an attorney in your area if you are unsure about what is permitted.  

Criminal penalties can be imposed in some states

In certain locations, violating a stay-at-home order may trigger not just a civil sanction but a criminal charge as well. Some states classify violation of a public health order as a misdemeanor, which can carry a sentence of up to one year in jail. Governors and legislatures are generally not looking to incarcerate citizens or hit them with heavy fines just for overstepping rules that limit their movement, but there are cases of people being locked up because they didn’t obey the restrictions of the lockdown.

People are naturally frustrated about having to remain in their homes, especially as the weather improves. As some governments seek to restart various activities, the legal framework can be even more confusing. Contact your state and county health departments to learn the specific guidelines and precautions you need to consider. You can also check your local government websites to find out specific restrictions or lockdown rules you need to know to avoid a citation. 

If you have already been cited for violating a stay-at-home order or want to be sure that what you’re planning is allowed, a knowledgeable lawyer can help.