Hurricane season and shelters are complicated by COVID-19

Before June 1, Floridians were already concerned about how to keep living safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they have to worry about hurricane season too.

Every year, they stock up on basic supplies, check shutters to prepare for strong winds, and locate shelters in case they need to evacuate. But are shelters still a viable option in the age of social distancing?

The state recently started phase two of reopening. Some residents got back to work, and others are still in quarantine. While state and local governments attempt to balance economic recovery with health concerns, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted “a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms. . . of which six to 10 could become hurricanes.”

With hurricane season starting in June and lasting through November, businesses may close again, and families may need to evacuate.

Daphne Gregoire lives in North Miami Beach in a high evacuation zone. She went to a shelter to ride out Hurricane Irma in 2017.

 “It was really uncomfortable sharing the space with others,” she said. “We had to bring things to make our stay comfortable such as blankets and air mattresses.” 

Like Gregoire, many Floridians are asking themselves if going to a crowded shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic would be the best option.

“Even though we didn’t like it, we will go to the shelter just because we are in an evacuation zone,” Gregoire said. “It will be hard to do so in an enclosed space with so many people.”

One of the protocols or guidelines given to Floridians to fight COVID-19 is to maintain social distancing, but shelters may have a hard time accommodating this recommendation.

“My husband and I are very concerned about what’s going to happen not only to us but to the other families,” Gregoire said. “I hope the authorities come up at least with a waiting list that we can sign in ahead of time so that we can reserve our spot.”

Wesley Chau has volunteered in shelters. He is also one of the founders of Miami Tenants Union, an organization that seeks for defending tenant’s rights.

Chau has a possible solution that could prevent crowded shelters from spreading the virus. “Seems there is no way to ensure that people are going to have proper distance,” said Chau. “The best way the city can handle this situation is to provide hotel rooms or free housing, so people will be safe with their family and will have privacy.”

Homeless shelters have a similar problem. Miami Rescue Mission, a shelter with locations in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, has its vision “No one is homeless.” Both centers used to serve around 1300 people each day. Unfortunately, that number has changed because of the pandemic.   

“No one has COVID-19 guidelines for shelters, so we have to use our 20 years of experience to ensure the safety for people and our staff,” said Antonio Villasuso, director of Miami Rescue Mission. “We are maintaining social distancing, taking temperature, and we have right now a capacity of 60 people. Also, we have meetings with our staff every week to keep track of the pandemic.”

According to the Florida Department of Health, about 64,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the state, with hundreds more since phase 2 began. 

“The state should keep people inside longer and provide economic help,” said Chau. “They are taking more care about reopening business than what people are facing.” 

Paula is a broadcast media major at Florida International University. She is originally from Cali, Colombia, and she believes that journalists should report the news without favor and fair.