Early bands of heavy rain from Isaias lashed Florida's east coast before dawn Sunday as authorities warily eyed the approaching storm, which threatened to snarl efforts to quell surging cases of the coronavirus across the region.


Isaias weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm late Saturday afternoon, but was expected to regain hurricane strength overnight as it barreled toward Florida.


The storm's maximum sustained winds declined steadily throughout Saturday, and were near 70 mph (110 kph) at 5 p.m., when the U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded it its status. But the agency said it is expected to pick up strength overnight as it heads over warm water toward Florida.


The center of the storm was forecast to regain strength and approach the southeast coast of Florida early Sunday morning, then travel up the state's east coast throughout the day. It is expected to remain a hurricane through Monday then slowly weaken as it tracks up or just off the Atlantic seaboard. Heavy rain, flooding and high winds could batter much of the East Coast this week.


Gov. Ron DeSantis said Hurricane Isaias was downgraded to a tropical storm late Saturday but warned it will probably strengthen back into a hurricane while moving north along Florida’s east coast.


"Don’t be fooled by the downgrade," the governor said at an evening briefing at the state’s Emergency Operations Center. "We do think it’ll be upgraded back to a hurricane later this evening."


The St. Johns County Commission declared a local state of emergency on Saturday morning due to the approach of Hurricane Isaias.


The declaration allows the county to access resources and assistance to prepare for an emergency weather event. St. Johns County Administration and Emergency Management staff are monitoring the storm and are working with a variety of local and state agencies to prepare for its impacts.


The the St. Johns County Emergency Operations Center Hotline is offering more information at 824.5550.


Later Saturday, the county announced that beaches would be closed for swimming, starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. The release says: "Swimming will remain prohibited until further notice, as indicated by double red flags posted along the beaches. As Hurricane Isaias is projected to begin impacting St. Johns County Sunday morning, residents and visitors are encouraged to avoid the beaches until conditions improve."


St. Johns County is currently under a Tropical Storm Warning and a Storm Surge Watch. The community is advised to prepare for potential tropical storm impacts as early as 8 a.m. Sunday, according to a release from the county.


The release said there are no plans open shelters: "While the projected impacts do not currently warrant an evacuation or the opening of shelters, the community is projected to experience high winds and high water in low-lying locations and areas that are particularly vulnerable and prone to flooding.


"In addition, the potential for tornadoes also exists with the arrival of Hurricane Isaias. It is recommended that St. Johns County residents and businesses take all necessary precautions and expedite the preparation of homes and structures, as necessary."


St. Johns County spokesman Michael Ryan said there is a concern that some in the community may not be heeding warnings.


Ryan’s office said by Saturday afternoon all of sandbagging locations in the county were reporting "low to moderate interest from the public," with the exception of Windswept Acres Park (in Butler Beach which had distributed more than a 1,000 sandbags.


"Call it COVID fatigue, and we know that people are tired, people are weary, but we ask everyone to take this [storm] seriously," Ryan told The Record Saturday. "The impacts we’re most concerned about right now are high winds and flooding."


Ryan said county officials were especially monitoring areas such as Vilano Beach, Davis Shores, Butler Beach and Crescent Beach.


The county also announced that sand bag operations will cease at noon on Sunday.


St. Augustine City Manager John Regan said the hurricane would be the first test of the effectiveness of Coquina Park within the Davis Shores neighborhood.


The green space, completed recently, includes an irrigation system, fresh landscaping, a retaining wall and fence and is designed to protect the area from flooding.


The area has been previously impacted by flooding during hurricanes Matthew, Irma, and Dorian.


Regan said Public Works and other municipal departments had spent the last day or so fueling up trucks and charging equipment to be ready to respond to the storm.


Regan urged residents, even as they underwent hurricane preparations, to continue to observe COVID-19 precautions, including social distancing and mask wearing.


St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns said he was confident that with the cooperation of residents and business owners the worst effects of the storm could be mitigated.


"Fortunately or unfortunately — we’ve had experience with this [hurricanes]," Johns said.


Johns assured the community that every department in the county, from the Council on Aging to Public Works, had a coordinated plan to deal with any impacts of Isaias.


"We want people to prepare for the worst but hope for the best," Johns said.


Ryan said the situation was very fluid and that orders to evacuate or open emergency shelters could change as the storm moved closer to the area.


Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian, starting Saturday evening. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas evacuated people on Abaco island who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people.


Record reporter Colleen Jones and the Associated Press contributed to this report.