FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Two cruise ships with almost 2,000 people aboard could be arriving by Wednesday or Thursday to Port Everglades.
Earlier Sunday Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis issued a statement that, at this point, he “cannot support the Zaandam docking in my community."
The ship had been anchored outside Panama Canal since Thursday waiting for approval from Panamanian authorities to allow the ship passage through the canal. The canal had enforced policies amid the coronavirus pandemic that ships carrying any occupants with COVID-19 would not be allowed through.
But in a video on YouTube posted Sunday evening by Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford, he said he was excited to share the news with the passengers and crew on Zaandam.
“We recently were granted access to the Panama Canal so we could make our way East towards Florida,” said Ashford.
Now Trantalis is scrambling to work with the Centers for Disease Control, federal, state and local authorities to come up with a plan.
Initially there were 1,243 guests aboard Zaandam and 586 crew members. Four passengers who were aboard died, the ship has reported two confirmed cases of coronavirus, plus 53 guests and 85 crew members exhibiting flu-like symptoms. It was not known if any of the deceased passengers died from complications of COVID-19.
Holland America planned to have passengers were not ill be transferred to a healthy ship, the cruise line’s Rotterdam, and then isolate those who were sick on the Zaandam.
The Rotterdam would also dock at Port Everglades to have passengers disembark. Holland America stated on its web site that only passengers who have not been ill will be moved, and health screenings will be conducted before transferring.
"Priority for the first guests to transfer will be given to those on Zaandam with inside staterooms and who are over 70. Once aboard Rotterdam, all guests will continue to remain in their staterooms until disembarkation."
The statement went on to say that “any guests who are currently ill, or in isolation as a close contact, and all crew will remain on Zaandam.”
On Thursday, the ship’s website confirmed that "four older guests have passed away on Zaandam. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and we are doing everything we can to support them during this difficult time.” It is not known if any of the four passengers died from COVID-19.
Conflicting news about OK to dock
“We have to establish a protocol right before people get off the ship to ensure that there are medical technicians there in protective wear to be able to take these patients one by one and transfer them to a medical facility to make sure that they do no infect the rest of the population,” said Trantalis.
On Saturday, a blog post on Holland America’s website stated that they were “aware of reported permission for both Zaandam and Rotterdam to transit the Panama Canal in the near future. We greatly appreciate this consideration in the humanitarian interest of our guests and crew. This remains a dynamic situation, and we continue to work with the Panamanian authorities to finalize details.”
But Ellen Kennedy, spokeswoman for Port Everglades, said late Sunday afternoon: "Should Holland America receive approval to transit the Panama Canal, it would take about three days for the ship to reach South Florida. Holland America must then submit a plan prior to arrival that addresses a long list of Unified Command requirements for entry into a Port.”
It could, if it is given approvals arrive at Port Everglades, arrive as soon as Wednesday or Thursday.
Florida City Commissioner Ben Sorensen has concerns. "I do not see us having the capacity to treat and manage this significant patient population. "
“Why would they bring this to one of the hottest of hot spots. The port actually sits in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood on both parts of that area. You have people dying in assisted living facilities in both of those cities,” said Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine who has been against the ship docking here since the idea was floated.
Udine is wondering why the ship cannnot go to a Navy-type base farther up the coast or why other ways could not be explored so that the passengers don’t have to be taken off the ship and treated in local hospitals. “Is there a way we can treat them on the ship with another ship provided by the cruise line company?” Udine said there is a lack of supplies already in Broward County, where there are more than 800 confirmed cases. “Lack of supplies, limited testing ability and these are things that add to the problems that we’re all facing.”
At a recent commission meeting, Barbara Sharief, Broward County Commissioner, District 4 had a different view: “I think it would be quite inhumane of us to say that you can’t dock here.”
Cruising since March 7
Zaandam was sailing a South America cruise that departed Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 and was originally scheduled to end at San Antonio, Chile, on March 21. But, the company states, that "due to global health concerns, Holland America Line made the decision to suspend its global cruise operations for 30 days and end its current cruises in progress as quickly as possible so guests could return home."
Now, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, guests are sequestered in their state rooms and no one has been off the ship since March 14 in Punta Arenas, Chile.
A frustrated Trantalis said Sunday afternoon: “I have been provided no information regarding any plans on how all the sick people on the ship will be handled, particularly when we are amid on our health crisis here with thousands of people already testing positive for the deadly and contagious COVID-19 virus in the tri-county area."