Should we punish people who defy stay-at-home orders and the mandates of social distancing? And if so, how?

Now that human interaction has become potentially fatal, states have responded with various levels of lockdowns and prohibitions on gatherings, and yet some are ignoring these mandates and gathering, or operating businesses anyway.

Depending on where you are, that could be especially fatal. For example, with New Jersey’s more than 18,000 cases among the highest in the nation — Bergen County alone has nearly 3,000 — Gov. Phil Murphy and top law enforcement officials have taken aggressive steps. Statewide, police had responded to more than 70 incidents that led to individuals being warned, cited, or in a few cases, arrested for violating limits on private and public gatherings or offenses related to the epidemic. Last Saturday, police reported finding more than 40 people crammed into a tiny Ewing Township, Mercer County, apartment for a “corona party” featuring a DJ. The person responsible was charged with five counts of child endangerment.

Earlier this week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would be imposing fines of up to $500 to those defying social distancing rules.

We don’t believe this virus should create a new class of criminal. On the other hand, enforcement lets people know how serious it is to minimize exposure. Elected and law enforcement officials should think creatively about how to best enforce the coronavirus prohibitions, such as creating steps of violations, with fines increasing according to the level of risk gatherings might create.

At the same time, local governments are often offering confusing, unclear directives on how people should be living their lives. Shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and lockdowns are all relatively new terms in our civic vocabularies, and leaders need to make sure people understand the differences and send consistent messages.

For example, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is strongly encouraging people to stay home; at the same time, the city announced it has closed MLK Drive to vehicular traffic so people can use it to exercise. Most New Jersey parks remain open, although playgrounds and active recreational spaces are locked down. Some restrictions have been tailored to local conditions.

Hoboken, N.J., with 42,502 people per square mile, has imposed a curfew and closed its parks. Local parks also have been shut down in Bergen County. Far more drastic measures have been imposed in authoritarian China and even in democratic Spain, where surveillance drones have been deployed. France now requires citizens to carry a form to justify why they are leaving the house.

Draconian measures won’t be necessary if we accept that the current limits on some ordinary activities is a way to end the crisis. The orders issued by the city and by the state of Pennsylvania, as well as the state of New Jersey, could best be summarized as: Please stay at home unless absolutely necessary. Those insisting that normal life must go on need to remember that the people they could be infecting with a potentially fatal disease also deserve to have life go on — literally.