As Florida struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic that has killed at least 7,000 residents, state officials are now scrambling to deal with another dueling disaster gaining momentum: Hurricane Isaias.
“It’s just another thing to add to the torture,” Inez Cruz, a teacher in Palm Beach County, told the Washington Post. “It’s another worry on top of what we already had.”
While Isaias weakened to a tropical storm on Saturday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center said the natural disaster is expected to regain hurricane strength as it approaches Florida. It is estimated to make landfall in southeast Florida late Saturday or early Sunday as a Category 1 storm after drawing strength from the warmer waters in the Gult Stream.
After battering Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the center of the now Category 1 hurricane hit the Bahamas Saturday afternoon. Maximum sustained winds increased to 8o mph, snapping trees and knocking out power.
Estimations, however, show the hurricane’s forward motion has slowed to 12 mph as it continues to move northwest. President Donald Trump on Saturday approved an emergency declaration for affected Florida counties to allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide relief efforts if needed.
“The situation remains fluid and can change quickly,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a Saturday press conference.
But the duel emergencies bearing down on Florida are complicating each other. State-run coronavirus testing sites have been shut down in areas likely to be hit by the hurricane and, while normal protocol would call for mass evacuations and community shelters, hurricane evacuation centers are ripe for coronavirus outbreaks.
On Friday, Florida set a record for single-day deaths for the fourth consecutive day. The Florida Department of Health on Saturday reported 179 deaths overnight, bringing the state’s death toll to 7,022. There were 9,642 new infections, adding to a state-wide total of 480,028. Saturday’s tally was slightly lower than Friday’s, which saw a record-breaking 257 deaths.
The state has, however, reported less than 10,000 positive cases for the last seven days, following several record-high days in early July. Florida now has the second-highest number of cases in the country, behind California, with a positive test rate of about 12 percent.
But state officials are now shifting their attention away from the pandemic, and toward the incoming natural disaster. Officials in Palm Beach County on Friday ordered all city recreation facilities, including beaches, to be closed, and opened six emergency evacuation shelters for residents who live in mobile homes or low-income housing.
“It’s certainly unprecedented,” Palm Beach County Commissioner Dave Kerner said on Friday. “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.”
He said that shelters will have a strict mask mandate and social distancing rules, and residents will be screened before entering.
“I hope this storm doesn’t present a bump in the road in terms of our community response,” he said, adding that law enforcement would be present in shelters to enforce the rules. “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.”
In Miami, Mayor Carlos Giménez also closed beaches and marinas and put nearly two dozen evacuation centers on standby, but said they would be configured to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Trump has also reportedly canceled a campaign event scheduled for Saturday in Miami-Dade at his Doral golf resort.
“We still don’t think there is a need to open shelters for this storm, but they are ready,” Giménez told the Associated Press on Friday, adding that the shelters would give every individual about 40 square feet of space.
The shelters will also not serve cafeteria food to abide by social distancing. Infected evacuees will be isolated in rooms separate from the general population.
On Friday, DeSantis declared a state of emergency for counties along the state’s east coast, urging residents to remain vigilant and prepare emergency kits with a week’s worth of supplies. A hurricane watch has also been put into effect from Hallandale Beach to Boca Raton, as well as a storm-surge watch from Jupiter to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Stressing that the state is “fully prepared,” the Republican governor added that some state-run coronavirus testing sites would be closed. “Our sites, because they're outdoors with tents, if it were to get 40-, 50-mile-per-hour winds, it would just collapse,” he said Friday, adding that the state is prepared to open shelters and has created a reserve of PPE for the hurricane season. “Safety is paramount for that.”
DeSantis said Florida had built a stockpile of 22 million gloves, 20 million masks, 10 million gowns, 1.6 million face shields, 270,000 coveralls and 20,000 thermometers for impacted areas.
He said Trump approved his emergency declaration request after attending a roundtable on coronavirus and storm preparedness in Tampa on Friday evening.
“I want Floridians to know, the state of Florida is fully prepared for this and any future storm during this hurricane season,” DeSantis said.