Cruise ship stranded at sea by coronavirus outbreak begs Florida to dock

The Zaandam cruise ship off the Panama coast on Friday.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday that it’s working with the Holland America cruise line on a detailed docking plan that would require two ships carrying passengers and crew from an ill-fated cruise to handle all medical issues without affecting South Florida’s already-stressed hospitals.

If a “unified command” of state, local and federal officials can’t unanimously adopt the plan, they’ll punt a decision to Washington, Coast Guard Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian said.

“There are no great choices left. These are all tough outcomes. ... The last thing we want to do is execute a plan that someone doesn’t agree with,” she told the Broward County Commmision during an emergency meeting on the fate of the Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam.


Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony called the situation a “humanitarian crisis” and asked commissioners not to vote based on emotion. Allowing the ship to dock in South Florida would burden the local healthcare system and put residents at risk of additional exposure, he warned.

“This ship has been turned away from several countries already. We are the United States of America and we have never turned away people in need or those that are sick, but we are in some very, very critical circumstances where we as a county are going to have to determine are we willing to take on this responsibility.”

Hundreds of passengers and crew members from the Zaandam have not stepped on dry land for 15 days as the novel coronavirus prompted authorities around the world to seal borders, implement checkpoints and force people into quarantines. Passengers were asked to keep their cabins dark and their drapes closed when they passed through the Panama Canal on Sunday night after days of wrangling with local authorities.

Health officials warned that Seattle’s progress was insufficient, and urged citizens to redouble their commitment to hand-washing, working from home and staying away from anyone but close family members.

Laura Gabaroni and her husband, Juan Huergo, are among those aboard the Zaandam cruise ship.
(Juan Huergo via Associated Press)

Dozens aboard the ship have reported flulike symptoms and four people have died, with at least two of the deaths blamed on the coronavirus by Panamanian authorities. The company said eight others have tested positive for COVID-19, but 2,300 passengers and crew members are in good health.


Hundreds of others who were fever free and not showing any symptoms were transferred to the Rotterdam, sent last week with supplies and staff to replenish the stranded boat.

The Zaandam was originally scheduled to sail on March 7 from Buenos Aires to San Antonio, Chile, and then depart on March 21 for a 20-day cruise to arrive in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in early April. But beginning March 15, the Zandaam was denied entry by South American ports, even before passengers reported their first symptoms on March 22. The ship approached the coast of Panama last week and negotiated permission to use the canal to reach the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Florida.

Canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez said Panama was not allowing any vessels with positive coronavirus cases through but made an exception for the ships.

As Zimbabwe enters lockdown, people in the economically shattered country are forced to choose between daily survival and measures to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

“That case [the Zaandam] was simply for humanitarian reasons,” Vásquez said.

Passenger Emily Spindler Brazell of Tappahannock, Va., said the cruise line has been accommodating, offering passengers extravagant meals, wine and unlimited phone calls. At the same time, it has been clear they have to stay in their cabins and not have any contact with crew members.

“The captain said something like, ‘This is not a trip anymore. This is not a cruise. This is a humanitarian mission,’” said Brazell, who was transferred to the Rotterdam on Saturday.

The Rotterdam now has nearly 800 passengers and more than 600 crew members aboard. Holland America said 450 passengers and 602 crew members are left on the Zaandam, with more than 190 reported flulike symptoms. More than 300 U.S. citizens are on both ships combined.

Holland America President Orlando Ashford wrote a column in the South Florida Sun Sentinel to plead with officials and residents to let the passengers disembark.

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“Already four guests have passed away and I fear other lives are at risk,” Ashford wrote. “The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.”