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Isaias weakens; may strengthen on path to virus-hit Florida

SAN JUAN — Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas on Saturday and weakened to a tropical storm as it churned toward the Florida coast, where it still threatened to complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus in a hot spot.

The storm, which was expected to regain hurricane strength as it neared Florida, was piling another burden on communities already hard hit by other storms and sickness.

Florida authorities closed beaches, parks, and virus testing sites. Though officials did not expect to have to evacuate people, they wrestled with how to prepare shelters where people could seek refuge from the storm if necessary, while safely social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

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“The most important thing we want people to do now is remain vigilant,” said Governor Ron DeSantis.

Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas opened shelters for people in Abaco island to help those who have lived in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people.

Isaias’ maximum sustained winds dipped steadily Saturday and were near 70 miles per hour around 8 p.m., hours after the US National Hurricane Center downgraded its status. It said Isaias would regain hurricane strengthen by early Sunday.

By Saturday evening, the storm was about 100 miles southeast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was moving northwest at 9 miles per hour and expected to be near Florida’s southeast coast early Sunday, then tack near or along the state’s Atlantic coast during the day.

Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane through Monday, then slow weaken on its climb up the Atlantic seaboard. It’s expected to move offshore of the coast of Georgia en route toward the mid-Atlantic states. Heavy rain, flooding and high winds could batter much of the East Coast during the week.

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Despite the approaching storm, NASA said the return of two astronauts aboard a SpaceX capsule was still on track for Sunday afternoon. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were preparing to make the first splashdown return in 45 years, after two months docked at the International Space Station. They were aiming for the Gulf of Mexico just off the Florida Panhandle, and flight controllers were keeping close watch on the storm.

Isaias had already been destructive in the Caribbean: On Thursday, while still a tropical storm, it uprooted trees, destroyed crops and homes, and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. One man died in the Dominican Republic. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floodwaters that swept away one woman, whose body was recovered Saturday.

As the storm moved toward the southeast coast of Florida, a hurricane warning was in effect from Boca Raton to the Volusia-Flagler county line, which lies about 150 miles north.

Florida has been a coronavirus hot spot in the United States in recent weeks, and the added menace of a storm ratcheted up the anxiety there as well. State-run virus testing sites were closing in areas where the storm might hit because the sites are outdoor tents, which could topple in high winds.