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COVID-19 could end Florida’s use of schools as hurricane shelters

The state is considering using hotels instead of shelters — and limiting when people are told to evacuate.

TALLAHASSEE — To avoid the spread of COVID-19, Florida’s officials might not open up mass shelters or schools for people seeking cover during a hurricane.

Instead, the state might use hotels, paid for with federal funds, and deploy ride sharing services to shuttle people out of harm’s way, Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz told members of a task force to reopen Florida.

An even more radical solution has received some attention, as well.

“Do we change the concept of evacuating at all?” Moskowitz said on Friday.

As hurricane season approaches on June 1, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has state officials reconsidering placing hundreds or thousands of Floridians into large open spaces. Using those locations could require taking everyone’s temperature before entry, buying and erecting dividers to keep people separated, and other preventive measures.

The state already is talking to Abbott Labs and others about getting an extra supply of virus tests for hurricane shelter needs, Moskowitz said. The department has similar worries about using buses to take evacuees out of harm’s way.

It might be safer, Moskowitz said, to have the state hire Uber or Lyft drivers to transport families to shelters. Another possibility, he added, is to provide gas cards to families that have limited financial means to help them escape.

The state is also discussing whether to issue stay-at-home orders for Category 1 and 2 storms, rather than evacuating, for people living in homes built after 1996, when the construction guidelines were made stricter.

“That way we don’t have as many people congregating, leaving,” he said, noting such an idea would not be as useful for stronger storms.

Moskowitz also raised concerns about being able to get support from outside Florida to come help with repairs after a hurricane, and suggested that the numbers of volunteers will likely dwindle, too. One possibility he floated was hiring unemployed Floridians to help with that work, if needed.

Gov. Ron DeSantis asked task force members to come up with recommendations on how to reopen the state by Friday, but that deadline has been pushed back to early next week. His stay-at-home order is scheduled to expire Thursday.

So far, the business leaders and local officials on the task force have had looked to the governor and his Department of Health for guidance. So far, they’ve had two requests: Give clear orders, and give those orders as soon as possible so everyone can prepare.

Even law enforcement agencies are asking for that guidance. Amy Mercer, executive director of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, requested that officers not be turned into “the distancing police” when businesses reopen.

“If they open with certain social distancing rules, there needs to be clear guidelines everyone can understand,” Mercer said. “Otherwise, the confusion will lead to more calls to law enforcement agencies.”

Florida’s top business regulator suggested that a reopening would likely start in rural counties that have not seen as many cases of COVID-19, while eight counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Orange, Lee and Duval — may require a more “measured” approach to phase businesses back into operation.

Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears said some businesses would need weeks to restock inventory, bring employees back and train them on new safety guidelines.

Restaurants would have additional rules, such as training employees on the expectation of increased frequency of handwashing, making hand sanitizer more accessible and not allowing patrons to cluster in bar areas.

“How these private businesses open and operate would dictate how quickly customers return based on their comfort levels,” Beshears said. “If the business performs in a safe, clean and comforting environment while maintaining the health and safety of all of their employees, customers and patrons, these businesses will learn to operate in this new world.”

Information from News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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