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COVID-19 prompts changes at shelters this hurricane season

Pinellas County officials say you'll have more space to social distance, must have a mask and will eat in varying shifts.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — We're in the middle of hurricane season and a pandemic.

With COVID-19 cases and deaths climbing in Florida, your hurricane season plans will be different this year. And, we're not just talking about preparing. 

On Thursday, expert panelists from around Pinellas County hosted a forum encouraging people to prepare before, during and after a storm. 

The biggest changes are coming because of how coronavirus will impact shelters -- how they will run and how to keep people as safe as possible in the event of a storm during the pandemic.

There are still three types of public shelters offered to the public during a hurricane: special needs shelters, general shelters and pet-friendly shelters. The COVID-19 changes will apply to all of them.

"I've made several changes to the normal shelter environment," Emergency Management Coordinator with Pinellas County Mecca Serfustini said. 

The first big change you can expect is space. 

"Usually people get about 20 square feet of space in a shelter, but now they will be getting closer to 60 square feet, especially for families. Before you could check into a shelter and claim wherever you liked but now you will be assigned a space in order to maintain control of social distancing," Serfustini said. 

She says they will keep families together as well. 

The second big change is getting a color-coded wristband. 

"That will help with any disputes over space, in case someone is encroaching too close on other people's space, the band will let us know who belongs where," Serfustini said. 

The third big change is meals and eating in shifts. Those color-coded wristbands will determine what shift you can eat to prevent everyone from crowding the cafeteria area all at once. 

"We will not offer buffets, instead you will get a to-go container with your food in it," Serfustini said.

And, the fourth change: you will need a mask. Authorities encourage you to bring your own mask and hand sanitizer but will have some backups. Leaders recommend packing extra gloves, masks and first aid kits with medications you may need. 

More space per family means fewer people can fit in shelters overall. So, emergency management leaders say shelters should be your last option in the event of a storm. Instead, they recommend making your hurricane plan to stay at a friend's or family member's home or to evacuate the area impacted by the storm entirely.

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