Some residents said fear of the virus would keep them from going to emergency shelters even if a mandatory evacuation order was given, illustrating the challenge of planning how to keep safe.
"I know that North Carolinians have had to dig deep in recent months to tap into our strength and resilience during the pandemic, and that hasn't been easy," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said at a Monday afternoon news conference. "But with this storm on the way, we have to dig a little deeper. Let's keep each other safe from the wind and the water, as well as from the virus."
In North Carolina, parts of the Outer Banks were under a mandatory evacuation order Monday, as was Ocracoke Island. The hurricane is expected to land between Charleston, S.C., and Wilmington, N.C.
Isaias skirted along Florida's coastline for much of the weekend but never made landfall. It was downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm as it moved north. Officials in the state assessed lessons learned from their brush with a hurricane as Florida struggles to beat down a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths that spiked to record numbers in July. More than 491,000 Floridians have tested positive for the coronavirus and more than 7,200 have died.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) gave the state high marks for its response to hurricane plans that "had to evolve in the light of the coronavirus."
"It was a good trial run for what will likely be a busy hurricane season," DeSantis said at a news conference. "In particular, we had the opportunity to beta-test the new sheltering strategy."
That strategy includes supplying personal protective equipment such as masks and thermometers to evacuation shelters and arranging housing for people who have or are suspected of having covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
DeSantis said people who recently tested positive for the virus or did not pass a temperature check came to shelters in Palm Beach. They were "directed to a nearby hotel and had a safe place to stay," DeSantis said.
But that strategy may not work in all counties. The impacts at schools that are typically used for shelters haven't been tested because schools in the state are not yet open. DeSantis has been pushing public schools in the state to fully open this month.
"Our shelters are all at schools," said Martha Ann Kneiss, communications and outreach coordinator for Martin County on Florida's Atlantic Coast. "We don't have any motels in Martin County that are doing covid-positive sheltering, so our option is to delegate space within the shelter for covid."
Kneiss said teachers are returning to the county's classrooms this week, and students are expected next week.
"It will have to be a super quick turnaround" to get schools ready after they've been used as shelters, Kneiss said. "The schools will have to be completely sanitized."
The prospect of housing evacuees with covid-19 in schools that are about to open played into the county's strategizing over whether to open shelters as Isaias was closing in on the coast.
"We talked about shelters, and with covid, it presents an entirely other layer to our planning," Kneiss said. "We were prepared to shelter, but there was a low risk from the storm, and bringing in a vulnerable population to the shelters could pose a potential risk."
The county decided not to order evacuations for Isaias.
"Chances are we will be faced with that," Kneiss said. "We're not even at the height of the hurricane season yet."
September is the peak of the six-month hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.
North Carolina was struggling with similar concerns, and the state discouraged residents from going to shelters if they could help it. Cooper said evacuees in shelters will be given 115 square feet of space to adhere to physical distancing recommendations. Masks will be required.
"We want to encourage people to find places to stay with friends and family," Cooper said. "If they can't do that, stay in a hotel if they can afford it."
In New Bern, a city of 30,000 in eastern North Carolina that was hammered by Hurricane Florence in 2018 and again last year by Hurricane Dorian, emergency preparation is markedly different as residents face their first major storm since the pandemic. The coronavirus has infected 125,000 North Carolinians and killed nearly 2,000 people statewide.
"The epidemic is completely different," said Thomas Mark, chairman of the Craven County Board of Commissioners. "You have some control in a storm. You have no control over this virus."
City and county officials were scattered in different buildings instead of a single control hub, discussing plans by telephone or video.
Mark said they are not expecting a severe storm — probably with high winds and rains, possibly tornadoes, that would strike hardest before dawn Tuesday. But eventually hurricanes will arrive, probably before there is a vaccine for coronavirus.
In past years the county could cram 1,000 people into shelters, mostly in public schools. But with the six-foot distancing requirements, he said, capacity is down to 500.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) did not declare a state of emergency, but officials in Horry County opened an emergency operations center Monday. Residents in the county, which includes Myrtle Beach, were told to stay indoors until the storm passes.
Isaias comes amid the Myrtle Beach area's struggle with corralling the coronavirus as deaths statewide have increased.
"The covid-positive population is a challenge," said Gayle Resetar, chief operating officer of Tidelands Health, which operates two hospitals in the area. "The likelihood of a full-scale evacuation of those patients is going to be virtually impossible. We have a very solid shelter-in-place plan. The good news is that [Isaias] lets us go through our normal drill procedures. It just allows us to reinforce with our staff their need for a plan."
As a light rain started to fall Monday afternoon in New Bern, 60-year-old Debbie Jones sat on a patio with a distant view of the Trent River. During Hurricane Florence, that river flooded the first floor of her former apartment nearby, destroying family photos and the washing machine that she had just paid off. She moved to a similar building a short walk away. But her old damaged building, and several others, are still vacant.
During Florence, Jones said, she fled to a daughter's house. But other neighbors went to shelters. She said she would not go to a shelter, and that her neighbors told her they would not, either — because of fear of the coronavirus.
"I don't want to catch it," she said. "You don't know who's got it."
Sacchetti reported from New Bern, N.C., and Rozsa from West Palm Beach, Fla. Issac J. Bailey in Myrtle Beach, S.C., contributed to this report.