Two coronavirus-stricken Holland America cruise ships that are carrying four dead passengers are now making their way towards Florida in the hopes they will be allowed to disembark following weeks in limbo at sea.
Both the Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise liners – which are carrying more than 1,800 passengers and crew – began transitioning through the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in Central America, on Sunday en route to Fort Lauderdale.
Four elderly people, including one American, on board the Zaandam liner have died and two people have tested positive for coronavirus, the company said last week without disclosing their identities or cause of death.
More than 130 people on the ship have reported flu-like symptoms.
Despite now making their way towards Florida, American passengers on the ships have said they’ve received mixed signals about their fate even as they pleaded for help to be allowed to disembark.
The Zaandam and Rotterdam cruise liners – which are carrying more than 1,800 passengers and crew – began transitioning through the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in Central America, on Sunday en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Cliff and Doris Kolber, who live in Miramar, Florida, are among the passengers currently stuck on the cruise liner
The passengers have been told Holland America is still searching for a port that will allow them to get off the ship because the company had not yet received official permission from Florida.
Cliff and Doris Kolber, who live in Miramar, Florida, are among the passengers currently stuck on the cruise liner.
The couple, who have been barricading themselves in their room, are terrified they will become infected if they are forced to remain on the ship.
‘I visualize a big bad bogey man germ outside the door,’ Doris told NBC’s Today on Monday.
The couple said they should be allowed to disembark in Florida because they’re no different to the people who have flown or driven to the state from New York, which is the current US epicenter of the virus.
‘These ships are blocked. People coming in through the airport can turn around and go back home or get a car and go somewhere else. We can’t, we’re in the middle of the ocean, so why are they picking on us?’ Doris said.
Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford admitted in a video message that they are still trying to figure out where to disembark the passengers after the mayor of Fort Lauderdale said they could not take the risk of accepting the passengers unless appropriate safety measures were put in place.
The couple, who have been barricading themselves in their room, are terrified they will become infected if they are forced to remain on the ship
Ashford described the situation as ‘difficult and unprecedented’.
As the liners made their way towards Fort Lauderdale, Mayor Dean Trantalis said that allowing them to dock in his city was ‘completely unacceptable’ as no special assurances had been given about the passengers’ onward travel arrangements.
‘No assurances have been given that they will be escorted from the ship to either a treatment facility or placed in quarantine. This is completely unacceptable,’ Trantalis said.
‘We cannot add further risk to our community amid our own health crisis here with thousands of people already testing positive for the deadly and contagious COVID-19 virus.
He added that the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security ‘must create a plan to protect the community’.
The Zaandam had been stuck in the Pacific Ocean since March 14 after dozens of the 1,800 people on board reported flu-like symptoms and several South American ports refused to let it dock.
The ship left Argentina on March 7 – just 24 hours before President Donald Trump advised Americans to avoid traveling on cruise ships.
Passengers showing no signs of the virus were ferried a short distance to a sister ship, the Rotterdam, off Panama on Saturday. The Rotterdam had arrived from San Diego carrying medical staff, testing kits and food for the beleaguered vessel.
Passengers showing no signs of the virus were ferried (above) from the Zaandam a short distance away to a sister ship, the Rotterdam, off Panama on Saturday
Passengers of Holland America’s cruise ship Zaandam are transferred to the Rotterdam cruise ship in Panama City bay on Saturday
Panama on Saturday reversed its decision to block the Zaandam from its canal and said it would be allowed to transit from the Pacific to the Caribbean side for humanitarian reasons.
The Rotterdam has also now started transiting through the Panama Canal.
In his message, cruise company boss Ashford said he wanted to dispel a ‘myth’ that one was a ‘healthy ship’ and the other a ‘sick ship.’
‘Whether you’re isolated on the Zaandam or isolated on the Rotterdam, the way that we protect the health of those of you that are healthy is to make sure that you’re isolated safely while we figure out where it is that we’re going to take you.’
Apologizing to passengers, Ashford said: ‘It’s been a tough last several days.’
The Zaandam left Buenos Aires on March 7 and was supposed to arrive two weeks later at San Antonio near Santiago, Chile.
Since a brief stop in Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia on March 14, it has been turned away from several ports after reporting that 42 people aboard were suffering from flu-like symptoms.
American passenger Laura Gabaroni pleaded for help on Sunday, saying that the ports that had turned the Zaandam away would have the deaths of passengers on their conscience.
‘Four people are now dead, and that is on the head of all the people along the way who turned us away,’ Gabaroni told AFP after she was evacuated from the Zaandam.
American passenger Laura Gabaroni (above with husband Juan Huergo) pleaded for help on Sunday, saying that the ports that had turned the Zaandam away would have the deaths of passengers on their conscience
Laura Gabaroni and her husband Juan Huergo have been on locked down in their cabin on the Zaandam cruise ship
‘What we need more than ever right now is a place that will let us dock, so that the sick can get treated and the healthy can start doing whatever they have to do to get back to their homes and their lives.’
‘Please help us.’
In a video recorded in his small cabin in which he had been confined for six days, passenger Dante Leguizamon told AFP on Saturday it was ‘very difficult to maintain mental health’.
‘I am… on a boat that I cannot get off, with coronavirus patients, with four dead,’ he said, adding that he was ‘full of uncertainty, without money… and without knowing if there is a plane back home.’
The Zandaam is the latest in a string of cruise ships stuck at sea after being turned away by ports desperate to protect their own residents from coronavirus.
It comes as more than two dozen crew members from two Costa cruise ships were brought to shore in Miami before being rushed to the hospital for testing.
Footage from last Thursday showed the crew from the Costa Favolosa and the Costa Magica jumping into lifeboats in hazmat suits to reach mainland United States.
The Costa Favolosa and the Costa Magica had been carrying a combined total of 1,939 crew and there were at least 30 who had come down with a flu-like illness.
All passengers were able to disembark the boats back in Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique in the Caribbean.
Earlier, the Grand Princess had to be docked off the west coast of the US for several days after being denied entry to San Francisco Bay en route back from Hawaii due to confirmed cases on board.
In February, that company’s Diamond Princess cruise ship was in the spotlight when hundreds onboard were infected in what was then the biggest concentration of confirmed cases outside China. About 700 people onboard were infected and six died.