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COVID-19 Is Putting A Strain On South Florida Hurricane Shelters

Satellite image
The Florida Channel
This is a Tuesday satellite image of the storm, which is expected to be Tropical Storm Isaias this week.

With a storm in the Atlantic forecast to affect the state, South Florida could soon get its first real taste of a hurricane season during a pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed how we prepare and how we evacuate.

To try to prevent the spread of the virus in shelters, South Florida emergency officials have written a new game plan for this storm season. They’ll screen people as they arrive and give them more space.

Related: Latest on the storm

“I would say, as my daddy used to say, ‘we’re in pretty good shape for the shape we’re in,' ” says Frank Rollason, Miami-Dade County’s emergency operations chief.

He oversees the county’s 82 shelters. He’s working on installing dividers in the shelters – like the kind used at COVID field hospitals – and fans equipped with ultraviolet lights to help kill the virus. Masks and gloves will also be handed out.

“We have stocked up on a tremendous amount of PPE [personal protective equipment]. ... I’ve got over 4 million surgical masks in stock now, but it’s just been buying wherever I can find them. We got a lot of hand sanitizer. Wipes are hard to come by.”

He says the county won’t be able to meet guidelines for social distancing set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He says 3,000 county workers are assigned to staff shelters. But with family obligations and illness, he worries not all will be available, so he’s negotiating with the company that provides event staff at Marlins Park, Hard Rock Stadium and other venues.

“We’ve asked them for 1,000 people. And I talked to him on the phone the other day, he says, ‘I don’t have 1,000.’ I said, ‘Hey, get me 500. You get me 250.' It’s what I don’t have.”

Palm Beach County is trying to meet CDC guidelines.

“We’ll give every family member 20 square feet, and then we’ll try to space families 6 feet apart. Single people will get 60 square feet,” says emergency operations chief Bill Johnson.

Johnson says that’s cutting capacity from about 50,000 to 17,000,  but he says it’s unlikely shelter space would run out.