At a Glance
- Masks are required in many locations.
- Social distancing and temperature checks will continue.
- Vaccine status is not a factor.
Masks, social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols are the norm again this year at hurricane shelters in many locations along the U.S. Gulf Coast, including in Louisiana and parts of Florida.
"If they’re coming in our shelter they will be required to wear a mask," Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, President Cynthia Lee Sheng told weather.com in August ahead of Hurricane Ida. “We have to defend against COVID at the same time we’re defending against this hurricane.”
Several shelters opened in Louisiana and Mississippi ahead of Ida, which slammed into southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29.
A mandatory statewide mask mandate was reinstated in Louisiana on Aug. 2. It applies to anyone age 5 or older when indoors.
"Louisiana will be using congregate sheltering this hurricane season," according to a news release from Lafourche Parish, which was under mandatory evacuations for Ida. "That means mass shelter sites, with safe spacing, mandatory masking and other COVID safety precautions."
The state relied heavily on hotel rooms for sheltering during storms last year as opposed to group settings in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Nationwide, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that anyone in a disaster shelter should follow the rules set by local officials.
When asked specifically about face coverings in shelters, CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley answered more directly.
"Yes, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask regardless of vaccination status in this situation," Pauley told weather.com in a recent email.
In any setting, the CDC recommends wearing a mask indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission. As of Sept. 10, considered the peak day of hurricane season, every state in the U.S. was in the "high" category.
The situation is most dire in many Gulf Coast states most vulnerable to hurricanes, including Louisiana, Florida and Texas.
In Florida and Texas especially, controversy and confusion abound about mask mandates and the authority to issue them, including in schools and by local municipalities.
Samantha Bequer, a spokesperson for Florida's Department of Emergency Management, said it's up to local leaders in the state to choose whether masks should be worn in shelters.
The largest county in Florida, Miami-Dade, decided to require it.
“Those that refuse will be separated from the general population wearing masks and isolated with others who choose not to wear a mask,” Miami-Dade Emergency Management Director Frank Rollason told weather.com at the start of hurricane season.
In a more recent email, Rollason said that rule still stood.
Rollason and others interviewed said proof of vaccine wouldn't play a role in sheltering. The CDC backs that up.
"Access to safe shelter from disasters is critical even during community spread of COVID-19 therefore, shelters should accept all people seeking safety regardless of vaccination status," Pauley said in a previous email.
FEMA issued new overall guidelines in May for disaster operations in the COVID-19 environment. The 85-page document advises local governments to continue to maintain protective protocols at disaster facilities, "including temperature and health screenings, mask mandate provisions, hand washing and sanitizing stations, facility cleaning and disinfection measures, and social distancing requirements for on-site personnel.”
The Red Cross, which in 2020 provided more than 1 million overnight stays to evacuees from hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters, planned to continue its coronavirus protocols at any disaster shelters run by the agency.
“We will keep in place many of the precautions that worked last year to reduce the risk of COVID-19, including masks, health screenings, enhanced cleaning procedures and encouraging social distancing,” Red Cross spokesperson Greta Gustafson said.
New Orleans at one point had more than 12,000 evacuees from other cities staying in about three dozen hotels after back-to-back storms battered the state last year.
“I would say I feel comfortable with where we are now because … we went through this last year and if anything we’ve gotten unfortunately a little more used to some things,” Collin Arnold, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said in June.
Arnold hoped more people would be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the year goes on.
“In order to prepare for hurricane season certainly all of our residents in the city, and I would encourage residents all along the Gulf Coast, the Atlantic Coast, anyone affected by hurricanes … get vaccinated,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a huge part of moving forward into late summer and the fall when hurricane season is at its height.”
No matter how the rest of this hurricane season goes or how mask rules and other protocols evolve, those who work in emergency management say the uptick in major disasters isn’t going away.
“Disaster is a chronic problem in this country, and it is like any of the other chronic problems that we have,” Brad Kieserman, vice president of operations and logistics for the Red Cross, said. “It is just this constant, constant tempo of disaster after disaster.”
Or as Rollason put it:
“We don’t even pray for the best anymore. We just prepare for the worst.”
The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.