Editorial: Holland America owes passengers, crew and public

Tribune Content Agency

Based on comments at Tuesday’s meeting, most Broward County, Fla., commissioners want to help passengers on the cruise ships Zaandam and Rotterdam reach dry ground after being denied safe harbor in about a dozen countries.

So why is the ships’ owner, Holland America Lines, making things so hard?

Sometime early Thursday, the two ships should be approaching Port Everglades. On board are roughly 1,200 passengers and 1,130 crew, a small number of whom are infected with COVID-19.

We believe most people in our community want to see these people get off these ships as soon as possible. But first, we want to see a plan that gets the sick the care they need — and the healthy home — without compromising public safety or stressing Broward’s public health system.

It is inhumane to keep so many people adrift at sea and simply send them the medical care they would need during a quarantine period, as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has proposed for days. The greatest country on earth can and must do better.

Let us also learn a lesson from the Diamond Princess. Because of the virus, Japan kept that cruise ship — with roughly 3,700 passengers and crew — at sea for weeks. During that time, confirmed cases mounted. Seven people died. An infection control specialist at Kobe University wrote that the conditions on board “violated all infection control principles.”

On Wednesday, DeSantis said he was willing to accept any Floridians on board, but he doesn’t want foreign nationals to drain medical resources at the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus pandemic. His slight change of heart came after speaking to President Donald Trump, who has said he wants a solution.

At last report, only 45 people aboard the two ships were sick, with fewer than 10 needing immediate critical care. That’s a surprising number given that last week, when the company reported four passengers had died, it said 138 had symptoms of the disease.

If the most recent number holds, bringing everyone ashore would hardly tip the scales in our region. As of Tuesday, South Florida hospitals were running 33 to 40% vacancy.

But Holland America’s parent company, Miami-based Carnival, needs to present a better plan.

On Tuesday, Broward commissioners made clear the company’s minimalistic approach was inadequate. So did Capt. Jo-Ann Burdian, who as head of the Coast Guard’s South Florida sector, could refuse the ships entry into U.S. waters.

For starters, Carnival intended for passengers considered “well” or “recovered” — three days of no fever without medicine — to wear masks on leaving the ship and simply self-isolate at home. Carnival would drive some home. Others would take their cars. Others would be driven to the airport tarmac to board charter flights for other cities, with connections to other countries.

Carnival’s chief maritime officer, William Burke, said this plan aligned with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

But as we have seen repeatedly, asymptomatic people can carry the virus. The 305 Americans onboard the ships come from 37 states, including 52 from Florida. The foreign tourists hail from at least 13 countries, including 247 from Canada. Do we simply want to release people to the winds, as we did all those spring breakers who went home as potential virus carriers?

A better idea would be to quarantine the seemingly healthy passengers for the recommended 14 days. That could happen at some of the area’s many near-vacant hotels or at the former detention center for migrant children in Homestead, Fla.

It was surprising to see Carnival’s rushed and bare-bones proposal on Tuesday, especially since it was asking such a big political favor of the commissioners. For as it turns out, a good number of people in our community don’t want to see these ships dock.

“I regret that we didn’t communicate the information earlier,” said Burke, a rear admiral, told commissioners.

Commissioners also had reason to believe that Carnival was not acting in good faith. Two asked Burke about reports that another Carnival ship had surprised Port Everglades with a request to medevac someone to Broward Health Medical Center.

As Burke spoke, Commissioner Mark Bogen broke in. He had Broward Health CEO Gino Santorio on the phone. Santorio, Bogen said, had a different version. There had been “no coordination” between the company and Broward Health.

Burke said the story “blindsided” him. Bogen responded, “All we are looking for is accurate information.”

What’s on the horizon became a two-ship issue last week when the Rotterdam rendezvoused with the Zaandam to resupply it. According to Burke, healthy passengers were transferred to the Rotterdam.

That move helped those passengers, especially those occupying inside cabins, and brought relief to the Zaandam, but it made things more complicated for Port Everglades. Wednesday afternoon, a port spokeswoman said the question of whether both ships could arrive at the same time — as Carnival plans — was “still being debated.” It’s uncertain whether the port could “accommodate that.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, Commissioner Beam Furr told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board that a major issue is “figuring out the best way to get all the Americans home throughout the U.S., keeping everyone’s exposure to a minimum.” Domestic charter flights might leave from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Carnival plans charters from Miami to Canada, Britain and Germany.

Burke noted that Holland America has 1,500 employees in Broward and contributes much to the local economy. Indeed, Carnival is an important corporate citizen in our community and a big reason why South Florida is the world’s cruise capital.

Paying for the plan, though, is the company’s responsibility. Holland America chose to set sail from Argentina on March 7 despite increasing concerns about the virus. Furr said all parties “are trying to get to yes.”

Writing in the Sun Sentinel, Holland America CEO Oscar Ashford said, “To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.”

Agreed. Now let’s see the plan.


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