Hurricane Isaias lashed the Bahamas Friday as it churned toward Florida, bringing new dangers to a US state in the throes of an unrelenting coronavirus outbreak.
The category one storm, packing winds of 80 miles (129 kilometers) an hour, gained strength Thursday night after sweeping over the Dominican Republic.
As of 1200 GMT, it was an expansive storm, moving northwest at a speed of 17 mph, kicking up heavy squalls and whipping the southeastern Bahamas and Turks and Caicos island chains with strong winds, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
"Some strengthening is possible today, and Isaias is expected to remain a hurricane for the next few days," it said.
The eye of the storm was expected to pass over southeastern Bahamas sometime during the day Friday and reach the central Bahamas during the night.
Hurricane warnings were up across the low-lying Bahamas while eastern Florida was under a tropical storm watch.
Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis on Thursday relaxed strict stay-at-home orders imposed because of the coronavirus to allow residents to prepare for the hurricane.
"I beg you, do not use this period for hurricane preparation to go socializing and visiting friends or family," Minnis said at a news conference.
"If you do not need to be out, please, please, STAY AT HOME! We are in the midst of a pandemic and if we do not act responsibly, the consequences could be dire," he said.
It is the Bahamas' first hurricane since Dorian, a maximum strength Category 5 storm last year that devastated two islands, pummeling them for three days.
- Hurricane plus pandemic -
Isaias left a shambles in Puerto Rico, downing trees and electric lines and inundating houses as it cut a path through the island on Thursday.
"If you are seeing this, please, we need help," a man in Mayaguez, on the island's western side, begged in a video that showed his family clinging to the roof of their car as rising waters inundated their house.
In pandemic-hit Florida, meanwhile, residents braced for what could be a Category 2 hurricane, with winds of up to 95 mph, by the time Isaias arrives.
Its arrival would play havoc in a state whose hospitals are flooded with a surge of COVID
"Make sure you have a plan, and have seven days' worth of food, water and medicine," Florida governor Ron DeSantis urged Floridians on Thursday.
Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade county, offered assurances that preparations were under way in case the storm hits the populous southern tip of the peninsula.
"We have 20 evacuation centers on standby. They're not open and we will have them set up with COVID
-19 safety measures," he told a news conference.
The state's coronavirus testing centers, meanwhile, were closed Thursday and won't reopen until they get the all-clear.
The state's emergency management division explained that the testing centers are housed in tents and could not withstand tropical force winds.
For several weeks now, Florida has had nearly 10,000 new coronavirus cases a day and on Thursday reported 253 more deaths from the disease, setting a state record for a third consecutive day.
The virus has claimed more than 6,000 lives in the Republican-run state, which is now second in the nation in number of cases, surpassing early epicenter New York.
Only California, with almost double Florida's 21 million population, has had more.