GAINESVILLE – Ahead of a hurricane, Florida recommended new limits on the numbers of people who might seek refuge in county emergency shelters and closed some virus-testing sites – even as the state set a record for the number of deaths for the fourth consecutive day.
Hurricane Isaias represents Florida’s first possible experience with a deadly double-whammy of a hurricane during a pandemic. The virus complicates preparedness efforts amid concerns it could spread within crowded storm shelters filled with strangers. Experts said government shelters should be a last resort and hotels might be safer.
“Go to family, friends’ homes,” said Preston Cook, former director of the emergency management office in Hillsborough County in Tampa. “Go somewhere that you can control your environment a little bit better than in a shelter.”
The storm, a Category 1 hurricane with 75-mph winds expected to strengthen overnight, will affect South Florida late Friday and early Saturday, before it drenches Florida’s Atlantic coast throughout the weekend as it marches north.
Florida’s Division of Emergency Management has 20 million masks, 22 million gloves, 10 million gowns, 1.6 million face shields, 270,000 coveralls and 20,000 thermometers on hand for the hurricane, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
The state recommended that counties impose new rules to protect refugees from the storm, including screening people before they’re allowed inside shelters, social-distancing inside shelters and limiting shelters to fewer than 50 people, said Jason Mahon, a spokesman for the emergency management agency.
Mahon said the state planned to distribute personal protective equipment kits at shelters and hotels.
In the Florida Keys, a spokeswoman for Monroe County Emergency Management, Kristen Livengood, said the county will not be opening any shelters.
The City of Key West’s homeless assistance program, the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter, will be operating, Livengood said. Social-distancing rules will be enforced, and in the case of an unexpected emergency, homeless people there will be driven to shelters in Miami.
Cook, the former emergency official in Tampa, said fears about the pandemic could discourage Florida residents from evacuating even low-lying areas prone to flooding – until it’s too late. He said counties should consider non-traditional buildings to use as hurricane shelters – such as apartment buildings – where storm victims wouldn’t have to stay together in a group.
DeSantis on Friday declared a state of emergency for East Coast counties. He confirmed the closure of some state testing locations due to Hurricane Isaias. Florida is among the states where coronavirus cases are spiking, with over 470,000 confirmed cases as of July 31.
DeSantis said all nursing homes in Florida are equipped with functional generators to protect from power-loss during a hurricane, a state requirement that came following the death of 12 nursing home residents in Hollywood during Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Florida was not the first U.S. state to deal with a hurricane during the pandemic. Texas recently withstood Hurricane Hanna when it made landfall as a Category 1 storm last week. Texas also closed some testing sites, at a time when cases also were surging in that state, with over 412,000 confirmed cases as of July 31.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org