FORT LAUDERDALE, United States: Two virus-hit cruise ships with dozens of ill passengers and crew received clearance to dock in Florida on Thursday after being barred from several South American countries, concluding a harrowing time at sea for those stranded onboard.
The Zaandam, operated by Holland America Line, and its sister ship the Rotterdam approached Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, according to ship tracker cruisemapper.com, after days of protracted negotiations over their fate.
“The Coast Guard, Homeland Security, health officials, and Broward County have reached a decision to allow the #Zaandam and #Rotterdam cruise ships to dock,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said on Twitter.
Four people have died on the Zaandam, for reasons not yet disclosed.
Rick De Pinho, a Zaandam passenger who was transferred to the Rotterdam at sea, sent AFP a recording of a message from the ship’s captain confirming port clearance had been granted.
“We’re going to miss the ship,” a jubilant De Pinho told AFP.
A total of 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew members are stranded at sea on the Zaandam and the Rotterdam, which came to its sister ship’s aid last week, loaded with supplies.
Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, initially said he did not want the ships to dock, for fear the ill passengers would tax the state’s already strained health care system.
With more than 8,000 coronavirus cases and at least 128 deaths, the Sunshine State — home to many retirees — has the fifth-most cases in the United States.
But late Wednesday, DeSantis changed his tune, telling Fox News that he had not realized there were US citizens involved.
“We actually have Floridians” aboard the Zaandam, he said.
President Donald Trump had said the ships needed to be evacuated, saying: “We have to help the people. They’re in big trouble.”
Trump said he was working with British and Canadian authorities to repatriate their nationals who are on the cruise liners.
Trantalis said Holland America, which is owned by Carnival, had agreed to a “strict set of protocols” governing how the passengers would disembark.
“It’s all going to be done in ways that are not going to expose the people of Florida to any of the illnesses that may be on there,” DeSantis told Fox News on Thursday.
The top US expert on infectious disease, Anthony Fauci, told CBS News: “You have to take care of the people who are ill. You just have an obligation to do that, and as quickly as possible.”
About 1,200 passengers who are not ill are expected to be sent home on charter planes.
They will be “transported in coaches that will be sanitized, with limited person-to-person contact and while wearing masks,” Holland America said Wednesday.
Some 45 people with mild symptoms will remain onboard in isolation until they recover and the estimated less than 10 people requiring critical care will be taken ashore for treatment locally, the company said.
“We have one hospital that is able to take some of the critically ill. They have the capacity to do that,” DeSantis said.
The desperate situation onboard the Zaandam attracted worldwide publicity, but it is just one of several cruise liners seeking permission to dock at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
The Zaandam, which left Buenos Aires on March 7, was originally meant to finish the trip in Chile on March 21 but changed course due to the virus outbreak.
After negotiations while the ships waited in waters off Panama City, it and the Rotterdam were allowed to transit the Panama Canal in order to head to Florida.
De Pinho, a 53-year-old attorney, and his wife were transferred to the Rotterdam because so far, they are healthy.
“You can’t have these ships floating around. People want to go home,” he told AFP from the ship before clearance was granted.