Florida’s second hurricane season during the pandemic is nearly here, and the situation is less dire than last storm season.
Vaccines are available to every adult, teenager and certain children who want them. Restaurants and shops are returning to normal hours and operations. This month, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended local COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates. And last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that inoculated Americans could go mask-free in most situations, indoors and outdoors.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Despite changing guidance from state and federal officials, face coverings will still be a key tool to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in hurricane shelters, health experts and Tampa Bay emergency officials said.
“We won’t know when people are welcomed into the shelter who has gotten the vaccine and who hasn’t,” said Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins. “That’s why we’re going to encourage people to wear masks and do social distancing.”
Emergency managers were thrown a wrinkle this month when DeSantis released an executive order suspending city and county mask mandates and other local virus-related restrictions shortly before hurricane season officially starts June 1. And, on July 1, that authority will become law via Senate Bill 2006, which grants the governor authority to “at any time, invalidate an emergency order ... if the Governor determines that such order unnecessarily restricts individual rights or liberties.”
While the bill specifically excludes “orders issued in response to hurricanes or other weather-related emergencies,” a spokeswoman for DeSantis declined to say whether he would overrule local governments that impose mask rules in emergency shelters when a hurricane evacuation is ordered.
Spokeswoman Taryn Fenske instead reiterated the governor’s decision earlier this month to do away with local pandemic restrictions, and questioned the need for masks in shelters.
“The COVID-19 vaccines work, and every Floridian who wants one has the ability to get one,” Fenske said. “Why will such measures be needed in the event a hurricane hits Florida, some months away?”
The governor’s order was enough for Pasco officials to change their posture. The county was going to require masks in shelters. Instead, they will be optional but “highly encouraged,” said Acting Emergency Management Director Monica Santiago, “because at the end of the day, COVID is still out there. It’s still a source of infection.”
Hillsborough still plans to require masks in shelters, and county leaders maintain they have the authority to do so despite the governor’s order, spokesman Chris Wilkerson said.
“County evacuation shelters are county facilities just like public libraries and community resource centers and fall under the direction of the county administrator,” Wilkerson said in a statement. “The county administrator currently has a policy requiring face coverings in county facilities as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.”
The rules and recommendations in place now could change over hurricane season; Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough officials all said they would continue to monitor case and vaccine numbers and change any plans in conjunction with their county attorneys, the Florida Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts pointed to several reasons why masks are still a good idea in hurricane shelters. As of this week, about 38 percent of Floridians had been fully vaccinated. Even as more people get the shot, it will still be impossible to tell who in a shelter is vaccinated and who isn’t, said Dr. Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist with the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions.
Vaccines provide the most protection, Prins said, and she recommends that Floridians get inoculated as part of their hurricane preparation plans. But masks help, too.
Although last week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement didn’t specifically address hurricane shelters, Prins pointed out the agency did recommend that even fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks in correctional facilities and homeless shelters.
A hurricane shelter has a similar effect of bringing people from different households together for several days in tight indoor spaces, which could be risky even for those who are vaccinated. Shelters will undoubtedly house the unvaccinated, since children under 12 still aren’t eligible for the vaccine.
“People may find themselves at a shelter for a prolonged period of time, which can mean prolonged contact with unvaccinated people,” Prins said. “That can increase the chance of a vaccine breakthrough case of COVID-19.”
Perkins, the Pinellas emergency manager, expects that some people who turn to a hurricane shelter will have health conditions that compromise their immune systems. And it’s important to consider special needs shelters, which house vulnerable people, such as those who are oxygen-dependent.
“So we’re going to highly recommend masks,” Perkins said.
Emergency managers emphasized that a shelter should be an option of last resort. Floridians, particularly those in evacuation zones, should start talking now to family members and friends who live inland or in higher-up areas about where they can stay if they live in an area that is ordered to evacuate.
But ultimately, the key is to have a plan, whether it includes staying at a shelter or not. University of South Florida geosciences professor Jennifer Collins was concerned by a finding from a study she co-developed last year about how the pandemic impacted hurricane risk perception: About three-quarters of the survey’s roughly 7,000 Floridians who responded saw the risk of being inside an evacuation shelter during the pandemic as more dangerous than the hurricane hazards outside it.
“People were very fearful last year, but it’s really important to reinforce the importance of shelters,” Collins said.
Her partner in the study, USF health instructor Elizabeth Dunn, has been working with officials in Hillsborough to make shelters as safe as possible. That means looking at additional spacing to decrease the number of residents per shelter, designing shelter floorplans so that households can sit several feet apart and encouraging if not requiring masks. Local officials also have plans to house those who are symptomatic, or have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, while keeping them away from other evacuees.
Dunn said she’s also helping train shelter employees to handle shelter residents who, say, don’t want to wear a mask. The key, she said, is to deescalate the situation and explain why the rules are in place.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep everybody safe,” Dunn said, “whether they’re vaccinated or not.”
Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: The percentage of Floridians who have been vaccinated was updated May 25.
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