“It is important that all Palm Beach County residents wrap up their storm preparation activities and begin to shelter in place early this evening,” Palm Beach County Emergency Management Director Bill Johnson said at a Saturday afternoon news conference. “The weather is already worsening and will continue deteriorating as the night goes on.”
Layered on top of the usual warnings about hurricane preparedness from county and state officials were cautions and reminders about the novel coronavirus as Florida is grappling with hurricane season and a pandemic. Florida’s death toll from the virus passed 7,000 Saturday, and the state recorded 9,642 more cases. More than 480,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported in Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said the state is sending kits with personal protective equipment to county shelters.
Palm Beach is the only county to issue evacuation orders, but they are voluntary and aimed at people living in mobile homes or substandard housing.
The risk of coronavirus is now part of the information emergency managers have to use when deciding whether to order evacuations.
“In the era of covid, our guidance from the state has been, look, if it’s a close call, err on the side of people just hunkering down rather then sending people on the road,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said residents along the state’s east coast should expect power outages. Restoring power will be slowed because of coronavirus precautions, said Florida Power & Light spokeswoman Sophia Eccleston.
“We have been actively planning and preparing, but there is no doubt that there will be unforeseen challenges related to covid-19,” Eccleston said. “Additional safety precautions that crews must take may slow their progress. The pandemic is real, and the consequences could be significant.”
Among the new safety precautions are mandatory daily screenings for power restoration workers, including daily temperature checks, according to the utility. The crews will also be broken up into smaller teams.
“If you see our crews at work, please remember to practice proper distancing, for your safety and theirs,” Eccleston said.
She said FPL has 10,000 restoration workers ready to deploy, including workers from Georgia and Texas. The utility is having trouble getting help from other states because workers are concerned about having to quarantine for two weeks after returning home because of the coronavirus.
The storm is expected to make landfall around Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sunday. Sustained winds had fallen to 70 mph late Saturday as Isaias was about 115 miles southeast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Forecasters expect it to regain strength as it passes over the Gulf stream and reach winds above 75 mph, the threshold for a Category 1 hurricane.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) has activated the National Guard in anticipation of the storm, which he said will probably cause flooding in some of the state’s low-lying areas, as well as power outages and dangerous rip currents. Evacuations were ordered in a handful of communities on the state’s coast, including in the Outer Banks.
Officials are urging residents to avoid shelters if possible because of the coronavirus and try to stay with friends or family or go to a hotel. Those who come to a shelter must bring their own bedding and care items and wear a mask.
“No one should take this lightly,” said Mike Sprayberry, the North Carolina emergency management director. “We have learned from past storms that they can be unpredictable and take a sudden turn for the worse, so now is the time to be prepared with a plan and an emergency kit.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said evacuations are not necessary in his state, but he urged people to take precautions.
In Palm Beach County, Fla., 150 people had moved to six emergency shelters that opened Saturday, and all are required to wear masks and stay socially distant from each other.
“They’re having their temperatures checked to make sure they’re not coming in with a fever,” county administrator Verdenia Baker said. “They’re also asked questions to ensure that they have not taken any fever-reducing medicine. And if they’ve been exposed to it, we have to take the appropriate steps to isolate them from the rest of the guests at our shelters.”
She had advice for county residents “as we continue to traverse these unprecedented waters” of a simultaneous hurricane and a pandemic.
“Mask up,” Baker said.
DeSantis said the change to Isaias’s status Saturday should not stop people from being prepared.
“Don’t be fooled by the downgrade,” DeSantis said. “We think it will be upgrade to a hurricane by this evening.”