- The Washington Times
Friday, July 31, 2020

The Trump administration said Friday that people fleeing Hurricane Isaias will have to factor in the coronavirus pandemic, from sheltering in place where possible to observing physical distancing if they enter a shelter.

“Normally, you might evacuate, this time, more advice will focus on sheltering in place,” Health Secretary Alex Azar said at a roundtable with President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

For those who do evacuate, Mr. DeSantis issued an executive order Friday that puts in motion agreements with local hotels that have agreed to house to provide non-congregate shelter to evacuees.

“All counties are encouraged to accept evacuees from other jurisdictions into their non-congregate shelters to allow for the state of Florida to practice safe social distancing measures,” the order says.

Florida set a state record for daily COVID-19 deaths for a fourth straight day on Friday, with 257.

As Isaias bore down on the eastern coast, Mr. DeSantis closed down COVID-19 testing sites but said his state is prepared to deal with two crises at once.

“I think it’s pretty clear we will get at a minimum tropical-storm-force impacts,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Government forecasters are predicting up to 20 named storms this season compared to a yearly average of about 12. Gonzalo and Hanna were the earliest seventh and eighth named storms on record, respectively.

Experts say battling storm season amid a pandemic presents a series of challenges.

“The first involves evacuation plans. People may alter their typical evacuation strategy if traveling or staying in a public shelter is viewed as risky due to COVID-19,” said Paul Miller, an assistant professor oceanography and coastal sciences at Louisiana State University.

There is also the risk that the mass movement of people from coastal areas with COVID-19 spikes could create a new problem farther inland.

Mr. Miller also said a dramatic drop in air travel may be detrimental to computer weather modeling and forecasts, which “benefit greatly from commercial aircraft observations over data-sparse regions,” such as the open ocean.

Mr. DeSantis said his Division of Emergency Management put the state operation center at “Level 1” in March, “allowing them to actively prepare for hurricane season even while responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The state set aside millions of gowns, masks, face shields, gloves and thermometers as part of a personal protective equipment “reserve” for hurricane season.

Also, Mr. DeSantis said every nursing home and long-term care facility has a generator in case of power outages. That includes homes set aside for coronavirus-positive residents.

He said state-testing sites on the west coast will remain open but he was forced to shutter ones elsewhere, due to the storm. All told, 43 state-supported testing sites will be closed until Wednesday in Miami-Dade and 11 other counties.

The sites are outdoors in tents, so high winds would pose a risk.

“If it were to get 40, 50 mile-per-hour winds, it would just collapse, so safety is paramount for that,” Mr. DeSantis said at a Friday press conference.

Peter Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently told Congress that states have been ordered to evacuate pharmaceuticals and life-saving ventilators out of the path of storms.

FEMA issued COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance in May, so states have had time to prepare for whatever comes.

“While this document focuses on hurricane season preparedness, most planning considerations can also be applied to any disaster operation in the COVID-19 environment, including no-notice incidents, flooding and wildfires, and typhoon response,” Mr. Gaynor said at a July hearing. “The Operational Guidance is scalable, adaptable and flexible to all hazards.”

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