WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Residents along Florida’s east coast on Friday prepared to deal with dueling disasters – a hurricane that threatened to sideswipe the coast even as the novel coronavirus continues to spread in the state.
Hurricane warnings were posted for Boca Raton north through Brevard County on Friday afternoon for Hurricane Isaias, as the Category 1 storm lashed the central Bahamas with heavy wind and rain.
The warnings were posted as the state reported 257 coronavirus deaths Friday, setting a record for the fourth straight day. The state also reported 9,007 new coronavirus cases, bringing Florida’s total to 470,386. Florida is second only to California in the number of coronavirus cases in the United States.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami shifted the cone of Hurricane Isaias slightly closer to the Florida coast Friday afternoon. The storm had sustained winds of 75 mph but was no longer expected to strengthen into a Category 2 hurricane.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who declared a state of emergency because of the pandemic on March 9, declared another Friday because of Hurricane Isaias, covering all of Florida’s Atlantic coast counties, from Miami-Dade in the south to Nassau in the north.
“While current projections have the eye of Isaias remaining at sea, the situation remains fluid and can change quickly,” DeSantis said at a morning news conference from the state’s Emergency Operations Center.
Later in the day, DeSantis traveled to Tampa to meet President Donald Trump, who attended a roundtable on the coronavirus and storm preparedness.
The looming storm prompted the state to suspend drive-through and walk-up coronavirus testing at dozens of sites along Florida’s east coast, including in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – which have the majority of the state’s coronavirus cases. The sites shut down Thursday and won’t reopen until Wednesday.
The threat of a hurricane during a pandemic has put many Floridians on edge. Ines Cruz has been quarantining with her 84-year-old mother and 9-year-old daughter since the pandemic began and can hardly bring herself to watch the news about the hurricane.
“It’s just another thing to add to the torture,” said Cruz, a teacher in Palm Beach County. “It’s another worry on top of what we already had.”
She said her mother has been cooking extra food in case the electricity goes out, and she and her daughter have been bringing outdoor lawn furniture inside. Cruz said they can’t put up the hurricane shutters by themselves, but she’s reluctant to ask for help because the three of them have kept their family bubble intact since March – and nobody else has been to their house.
“My mom has underlying health issues, so the whole point of our bubble is to keep other people away,” Cruz said. “It’s just a fear of asking anybody to help because we’ve been so careful. I hope this isn’t a storm where we’ll need the shutters.”
The hurricane could make a second landfall in North Carolina on Monday or Tuesday. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state of emergency for the storm. There is a mandatory evacuation order for Ocracoke Island starting at 6 a.m. Saturday. People needing shelter will be screened for coronavirus symptoms and given personal protective equipment including masks, Cooper said.
“With the right protection and sheltering, we can keep people safe from the storm while at the same time trying to avoid making the pandemic worse,” Cooper wrote on Twitter. “A hurricane during a pandemic is double trouble. But the state has been carefully preparing for this scenario.”
There have been more than 122,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in North Carolina, which set a state record for coronavirus-related deaths in a single day Wednesday.
In Florida, Palm Beach County opened six emergency evacuation shelters for people who live in mobile homes or in substandard housing. DeSantis said that the state is prepared to open shelters with coronavirus precautions and that the state had created a reserve of personal protective equipment for hurricane season. DeSantis said it includes 20 million masks, 22 million gloves and 20,000 thermometers.
In Palm Beach County, shelters will have new rules: Masks are mandatory, social distancing will be enforced, health-care workers will be on site, as will more police officers, and coronavirus-positive evacuees will be separated, said Palm Beach County Commissioner Dave Kerner.
Kerner said people would be screened before they enter the shelters, which are at schools, and will be handed a mask if they don’t have one.
“The increased law enforcement presence is because we wanted to make sure that all the rules are abided by, including masks and social distancing,” Kerner said.
The novel coronavirus is believed to spread most effectively in close, indoor spaces with lots of people and poor ventilation. Evacuation shelters can often fit that description.
The number of cases reported each day in Florida has stayed below 10,000 over the past week, following weeks of growth to a record 15,300 on July 12.
Kerner said Palm Beach County’s positivity rate has also been dropping. He hopes the closure of so many test sites ahead of the hurricane doesn’t reverse the trend. The county mandated that people wear masks in public places in June.
“I hope this storm doesn’t present a bump in the road in terms of our community response,” Kerner said. “We’re starting to see the effects of robust mask-wearing and social distancing, so I’ll be reminding my constituents to remain vigilant and cognizant that this is going on in a pandemic, and we don’t want to retreat from the progress we’ve made.”
He said facing two emergencies at once was a first for the county.
“It’s certainly unprecedented,” Kerner said. “It’s the first time any of us in the [Emergency Operations Center] are aware of that we’ve had two separate standing states of emergency for two separate issues. But we’re laser-focused on both. We’ll work hard to take whatever is thrown at us.”
Shanda Roberts, who lives in Miami-Dade County, is from the Bahamas, where many family members still live. They were hit hard by Hurricane Dorian last year. This hurricane season, she said, she can hardly keep up with the news.
“I haven’t even paid much attention to this storm. I’m too busy trying to keep from getting covid,” Roberts said. “I told my husband the other day that maybe we ought to get some stuff so we’ll be prepared if the storm hits, but honestly, I’m too busy worrying about other things. It’s just a bit much at this point.”
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