Passengers on Holland America's 2 stranded cruise ships, the Zaandam and Rotterdam, may be stuck at sea indefinitely as Florida officials fret over letting them dock

Joe Raedle/Getty Images and LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty ImagesThe stranded Holland America ships are Florida-bound, but not yet permitted to enter US waters. At left, Gov. Ron DeSantis.
  • The US Coast Guard will not yet permit the MS Zaandam, a Holland America cruise with at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19 onboard, and the MS Rotterdam, the ship sent to rescue its healthy passengers, to enter US waters.
  • Florida officials remain concerned that allowing Zaandam and Rotterdam passengers to disembark in Fort Lauderdale seaport Port Everglades could worsen the spread of coronavirus in the area.
  • Coast Guard Sector Miami Commander Captain Jo-Ann Burdian said at a March 31 Broward County Commission that Holland America’s parent company Carnival Corp. must first submit a complete report regarding the medical situation on each ship.
  • Four passengers have died on the Zaandam after an outbreak of respiratory illness sickened at least 189 people.
  • Carnival Chief Maritime Officer William Burke told county officials that it was fair to assume at this point that the disease was COVID-19. He said only 14 people are currently experiencing influenza-like symptoms, however.
  • Are you a cruise-ship passenger or employee with a story to share? Email [email protected].
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A Holland America cruise stricken with COVID-19 and the sister ship sent to rescue healthy guests have made it through the Panama Canal and are en route to Florida’s Port Everglades.

But the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea do not yet represent the home stretch for these ships and those on board.

The fate of both the MS Zaandam and the MS Rotterdam – and their combined pool of 2,500 passengers and crew members – remains uncertain, as officials in southern Florida weigh the risks of disembarking potentially sick passengers in a region already rife with coronavirus.

In a March 31 Broward County Commission meeting, US Coast Guard Sector Miami Commander Captain Jo-Ann Burdian said that the Zaandam and the Rotterdam would not be permitted to enter US waters until Holland America’s parent company Carnival Corp. submitted a complete plan regarding the medical situation on each ship.

“In the opinion of the seventh Coast Guard district, the conditions onboard present especially hazardous conditions,” she said.

The Coast Guard has been working with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Florida Department of Health, US Customs and Border Patrol, port pilots, and other officials, in an interagency task force formed to deal with the crisis at Port Everglades.

It will be left to that task force to approve any course of action regarding the stranded Holland America vessels, as well as other cruises stuck without a port of call.

The plight of the Zaandam and the Rotterdam reflect the unprecedented blow that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the cruise industry. The Zaandam’s cruise was scheduled to last 14 days, embarking from Buenos Aires on March 7.

For some passengers, the cruise would end after 14 days in San Antonio, Chile. For others, it was due to reach April 7 in Fort Lauderdale. Those plans were diverted because of the coronavirus, and the cruise ship was closed out of ports across South and Central America.

Now that four passengers have died onboard and at least two people have tested positive for COVID-19, it is unclear whether the ship will find safe harbour in the Sunshine State. Florida’s Ronald DeSantis, a Republican ally of President Trump, has loudly objected to south Florida taking on the floundering cruise ships.

But conversations at the county level have been more sober and muted, with officials weighing the humanitarian issue presented by the Holland America ships with the possibility of endangering citizens of Broward County.

‘It has fallen on our doorstep’

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said, addressing Broward County Mayor Dale V.C. Holness and the rest of the county commission on March 31. “This is not something that is exclusive to Broward County in terms of our responsibility. But it has fallen on our doorstep.”

He went on to say that the task force is still working with Carnival Corp. to come to a decision regarding the Zaandam and the Rotterdam. The ships are just two of about 15 cruise vessels looking to dock at Port Everglades.

“This is not a decision that should be taken lightly, nor is it a decision that should be exclusively made emotionally,” Tony added.

Broward County Commissioner Mark D. Bogen said that officials “can’t seem to get a straight number from the cruise line,” and asked Burdian if there was a way to verify Carnival’s claims about the number of sick people on its ship. He cited conflicting reports about the number of COVID-19 cases onboard.

“We rely on these companies who care about their reputation to submit information that is true and correct,” Burdian said.

Zaandam cruise shipIVAN PISARENKO/AFP via Getty Images‘At this point, we are assuming the people who get sick have COVID,’ Carnival’s chief maritime officer said.

Carnival Chief Maritime Officer William Burke also addressed the county commissioners to share the company’s perspective as well as updates from the ships.

“We are coming to the place of last resort,” he said. According to Burke, the Zaandam attempted to dock in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Colombia.

“And I heard this morning that Mexico is saying no,” he said, adding that the ship is currently attempting to arrange for two seriously ill individuals to medically evacuated to Mexico. He said the Zaandam has four doctors and five nurses, while the Rotterdam has two doctors and four nurses.

“Where today as of last night, our numbers were 14 passengers who are currently experiencing influenza-like illness,” Burke said. “Seven of those are in our hospital, and are being treated. Two of those are those that we would like to medevac.”

He said that reports in the media have been higher because it is Holland America’s protocol to report all those who have reported to the ship’s medical centre. According to Burke, the Zaandam initially received 200 COVID-19 rapid-test kits.

“At this point, we are assuming the people who get sick have COVID,” he said. Burke added there have been zero new cases today, one yesterday, and three on March 29.

Regarding Carnival’s plan of getting healthy passengers home, he said that the company would arrange for charter or “charter-like” flights to return guests to their country of origin, including the UK, Canada, and Australia. Passengers residing nearby in Florida would be provided with car rides home.

In his comments, Burke also stressed Carnival’s ties to Broward County.

“I feel a little uncomfortable pointing this out,” he said. “We do have a couple of offices in Broward. We do have 115 employees in Broward. We are not only a requester in this situation, we are also a user of your wonderful services. The Zaandam is home-ported in Port Everglades.”

At this time, Carnival is proposing a plan to only disembark passengers in Florida. Crew members would remain on the ships. At the meeting, commissioners raised multiple questions regarding whether or not the county could trust the cruise line to honour its agreement to not disembark ill crew members.

At one point, Bogen raised the breaking issue of the Regal Princess docking in Port Everglades with two COVID-19 positive employees onboard. Carnival Corp. owns both Princess Cruises and Holland America. Burke said he was not familiar with the situation regarding the Regal Princess.

‘No one wants to turn anyone away’

During the meeting, county commissioner Michael Udine expressed frustration about the matter of jurisdiction regarding the stranded cruises.

“Why is this being hurled on the people with the least amount of ability to solve this?” Udine said. “Where is this the idea of bringing this to a naval station? I just don’t understand how this has simply become a Broward County issue?”

Udine said that Broward County officials have fielded outreach from politicians across the United States with constituents on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam.

“No one wants to turn anyone away, so there’s additional suffering or additional health-related issues,” he added.

Zaandam cruise ship passengersLUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty ImagesThere have been four passenger deaths on the Zaandam.

‘Lives are at risk’

At one point during the March 31 meeting, Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr remarked that many people “didn’t realise” that many of the passengers aboard the Zaandam and the Rotterdam are United States citizens. There are 304 US nationals aboard.

Some of that confusion may stem from Florida Governor Ronald DeSantis’ rhetoric regarding the ship. Appearing on Fox News on March 30, DeSantis said he did not want to see Holland America passengers taking up hospital beds or resources.

“Not only that, I think a lot of these are foreigners,” DeSantis said.

“We cannot have people who aren’t even Floridians dumped into South Florida, using up those valuable resources,” he added.

DeSantis said he was in touch with the White House, as well as county officials, about the situation.

“We view this as a big, big problem and we do not want to see people dumped in southern Florida right now,” he told Fox.

The Florida governor’s office directed Business Insider to DeSantis’s March 30 press conference, in which he appeared alongside officials from Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties to discuss the state’s COVID-19 response. DeSantis announced that he signed an executive order that “codifies common set of rules regarding safer at home.”

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“Another issue that we’re monitoring is the cruise ship coming through the Panama Canal,” DeSantis said in the press conference. “We think it’s a mistake to be putting people into southern Florida right now given what we’re dealing with.”

He said that Holland America should arrange for medical personnel to be dispatched directly to the ship to “tend to folks who need medical attention.”

“But a lot of these are foreign nationals,” he said. “And we want to make sure we have the beds available for the folks here in southern Florida.”

Ronald ron desantis donald trump floridaJoe Raedle/Getty ImagesDeSantis has repeatedly characterised the people on the cruise ship as ‘foreigners.’

Broward County’s Holness also appeared alongside DeSantis at the press conference.

“Clearly what must be done is that we safeguard the people of south Florida,” he said. “And they haven’t given us a full list of all those who are on board and what the conditions are. So there’s a lot of work that is yet to be done in order for us to understand who’s on there and what the situation is.”

He also concurred with the governor that the “possibility” of Holland America organising “on-ship” medical treatment had to be considered.

In response to an inaudible question at the press conference, DeSantis reiterated that he has spoken with the White House about the issue. He said that the cruise line should “work with some of the folks in DC.” Regarding the option of diverting the cruise ship entirely, DeSantis said he did not believe that he had the power to do so, noting that it lay with the county or the White House. He said that he was waiting to hear back from the White House.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

DeSantis said that he – alongside Holness and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez – met with “the cruise ship people” several weeks ago. Business Insider reached out to DeSantis’ office to clarify whether those individuals were Holland America leadership or cruise industry executives, but has not heard back.

The governor went on to say that there is “nothing” that says Florida must take the ship, that the state is “just a convenient place.”

“The problem is that then that takes resources away from the folks in south Florida and, yes, we do have available beds but I don’t want it to be a situation where those bed could’ve gone to Floridians,” he said.

The relative of one group of US citizens on board the Rotterdam told Business Insider that she found DeSantis’ comments “unbelievable,” and took issue with his use of the word “dumped” in particular.

“I am appalled,” she told Business Insider. “Lives are at risk.”

Read Holland America’s latest statement:

Holland America Line can confirm that it was granted approval by the Panama Canal Authority to transit Zaandam and Rotterdam through the Panama Canal. We greatly appreciate this humanitarian consideration and the compassion shown for our guests and crew by the government of Panama and the Panama Maritime Authority. We are also thankful for the support of the various embassies that are partnering with us to help get their citizens home as quickly as possible.

We are still finalising the details for where and when our guests will disembark, and are asking for the same compassion and humanity to be extended for our arrival. The Zaandam cruise was originally scheduled to end in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on April 7.

The transfer of guests between Zaandam and Rotterdam was completed earlier today, March 29, before transiting the Panama Canal. The primary purpose of the transfer was to balance the workload between the two ships and to provide immediate relief to the service staff on Zaandam, which has fewer crew members working at this time.

The two ships will remain together for the rest of the journey. Guests on both ships will remain in their staterooms until disembarkation, and all necessary precautionary measures are being taken on both ships that have been developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Guests have not been ashore since March 14 in Punta Arenas, Chile, and have been self-isolating in their staterooms since March 22.

Guests who moved to Rotterdam completed a health screening prior to transferring via sanitised tender, with all other necessary precautions in place, including wearing masks, social distancing and direct transfer to their new staterooms. No guests who had any respiratory symptoms in the last ten days were transferred, and no Zaandam crew were transferred to Rotterdam.

Currently 73 guests and 116 crew members on Zaandam have reported influenza-like illness symptoms.

There are 797 guests and 645 crew on Rotterdam. On Zaandam there are 446 guests and 602 crew.

Complimentary telephone counseling services have been made available to guests and crew if they would like extra support during this time. For those with family members on board, they can call the Zaandam Care Centre at the following numbers for information: 1-877-425-2231 or 1-206-626-7398.

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. At the time, Zaandam was sailing a South America cruise that began in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 that was originally scheduled to end at San Antonio, Chile, on March 21. On March 21, Zaandam was originally scheduled to begin a 20-day South America and Panama Canal cruise from San Antonio, Chile, to Fort Lauderdale.

Read the Panama Canal Authority’s full March 29 statement:

The Panama Canal facilitated this Sunday the transit of Holland America’s MS Zaandam and MS Rotterdam cruise ships, under extraordinary conditions and for humanitarian reasons.
After not being able to dock at ports in South America, the MS Zaandam arrived to the assigned anchorage in Panama on March 27. Holland America’s MS Rotterdam cruise ship arrived earlier that day and was assigned anchorage awaiting the arrival of the MS Zaandam, in order to transfer healthy passengers and medical supplies, following strict protocols developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Passengers transfer continued throughout Saturday, March 28, and the delivery of additional supplies was completed this Sunday, March 29.
Panama’s Health Ministry (MINSA) authorised the MS Zaandam’s transit on March 28 after receiving information on the sanitary conditions of the vessel, including four deaths on board. On Saturday, the Panama Canal also authorised the transit of the MS Rotterdam, under the same conditions established by MINSA, allowing both ships to transit one after the other.
The Panama Canal has taken extreme sanitary measures to transit these two ships, including using the Neopanamax Locks as means to reduce to a minimum the number of Canal employees involved in the transit. The MS Zaandam had booked, since April 2018, a transit through the Panama Canal for April 1, 2020. Transiting the Panama Canal will decrease travel time to a port on the Pacific Coast of the United States by 2.5 days.

But now, with the authorization of Panama’s Ministry of Health, the ship will be “scheduled for transit after entering Canal waters,” according to the statement. The statement said that the Zaandam was originally scheduled to transit the canal on April 1.

The Zaandam is now anchored outside Panama Canal waters, undergoing a Panama Maritime Authority-approved operation in which healthy passengers are being moved to Holland America’s MS Rotterdam. It has therefore not had its transit scheduled yet.

“Travelling through the Panama Canal will allow the Zaandam to save two days in their journey back to Florida,” the statement from the Panama Canal Authority’s spokesperson said.

Holland America confirmed that four passengers have died on board the ship, while two individuals have tested positive for COVID-19. The Zaandam has been stranded off the coast of South America and Central America after different ports began closing to cruise ships due to coronavirus concerns. A bout of respiratory disease then broke out on the ship, prompting 138 sick passengers and crew members to report to the vessel’s medical centre.

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