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Florida declares emergency as Hurricane Isaias approaches

Friday, July 31st 2020, 4:27 pm - The storm has already caused at least two deaths in the Dominican Republic and tore down trees, flooded streets and knocked out power for thousands of homes and businesses in Puerto Rico.

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for counties on the Atlantic coast with Hurricane Isaias expected to cause heavy rains in the state as early as Friday night, prompting the closure of COVID-19 testing sites.

The hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 75 miles (120 km) per hour, was lashing the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in its latest update at 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT).

The NHC said heavy rains may begin to affect South and east-Central Florida beginning late Friday night, and the eastern Carolinas by early next week, potentially causing flooding in low-lying and poorly drained areas.

DeSantis told a news conference that he had signed an executive order establishing a state of emergency for east coast counties stretching from Miami-Dade in the south to Nassau at the northern tip, a move that makes it easier to mobilize resources.

The storm has already caused at least two deaths in the Dominican Republic and tore down trees, flooded streets and knocked out power for thousands of homes and businesses in Puerto Rico, according to local media reports.

"While current projections have the eye of Isaias remaining at sea, the situation remains fluid and can change quickly," the governor said around noon on Friday. "I want Floridians to know that the state of Florida is fully prepared for this."

Isaias prep Reuters Residents fill and collect sand bags before the expected arrival of Hurricane Isaias in Doral, Florida, U.S. July 31, 2020. REUTERS/Liza Feria

Miami-Dade's public beaches, parks, marinas, and golf courses were set to close on Friday as Isaias strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane, and forecasters predicted it would reach Category 2, with winds as powerful as 110 miles (177 km) per hour.

Miami-Dade County officials have also closed drive-through and walk-up testing sites for COVID-19, following a similar move by Broward County Mayor Dale V.C. Holness, who said the sites could reopen on Wednesday after the storm had passed.

"We have thousands of tests that will not be conducted until we get these test sites up and running again," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in a news conference on Friday.

For weeks Florida has been at the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak - it reported a record one-day increase in COVID-19 deaths for a third consecutive day on Thursday -although reports of new cases have recently slowed in the state.

DeSantis said COVID-19 testing sites would remain open on Florida's west coast and that testing at hospitals and community centers may also continue. The storm's main impact would be to sites set up outside and vulnerable to the wind, he said.

At full capacity, Florida had 162 test sites in all but two of its 67 counties.

The governor also said he was planning to narrow the scope of the state's testing. He estimated that about half of the people being tested were either "curious" without symptoms or people looking to go back to work. In line with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida employers should limit testing to symptomatic people, he said.

Ron De Santis Reuters Florida FILE PHOTO: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center on the Army Corps' building of a coronavirus field hospital inside the facility, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S. April 8, 2020. Al Diaz/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

In preparation for the hurricane, DeSantis urged residents to secure seven days worth of food, water and medicine and warned they could lose power. And while mass evacuations would not likely be necessary, the shelters were ready, he said.

Zinnia Santiago, a 50-year-old executive assistant, said she and her family were hunkering down in Coral Springs, one of the towns hit hardest by Hurricane Wilma, a category 4 storm, in 2005.

"I'm trying to prepare as best as I can. ... I have my flashlights, I basically just had water delivered to my home," said Santiago, who is immunocompromised and doesn't feel safe going to stores. "I kind of feel trapped in here, I'm just going on Amazon trying to purchase things, but they won't arrive on time."

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York.; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Jonathan Oatis, David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

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