FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — South Florida, the cruise capital of the world, soon will decide if it’ll start turning away ships with sick passengers — or become their saving grace by letting them dock at Port Everglades amid coronavirus fears.
Broward County faces a Thursday deadline to decide whether the port should let in Holland America’s Zaandam cruise ship — which has had four deaths and nearly 200 people fall ill. The ship is traveling alongside a companion ship, the Rotterdam, and both are scheduled to arrive in South Florida by midday Thursday.
But the county says Holland America hasn’t yet struck an agreement with the Coast Guard to enter U.S. waters, stalling the county’s plans Wednesday for deciding if the ship should be given access to the port.
For a week, acrimony has been building about the Zaandam’s pending arrival, with an intensifying debate over whether ships with sick people should be allowed in. Those who favor letting the ships dock say there should be compassion for the sick.
But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been against letting the Zaandam dock, concerned that it could overwhelm South Florida hospitals that already have an influx of seriously ill patients. On Wednesday, he proposed allowing Floridians to disembark from the ship and said officials were trying to figure out a solution for the other passengers.
“I obviously am not in control of the port. That’s run by the counties in southern Florida, in this case Broward County,” DeSantis said. “Clearly, we’re going to be willing to accept any Floridians who are on board. My understanding is that most of the passengers are foreign nationals.”
“My concern is simply that we have worked so hard to make sure we have adequate hospital space in the event of a COVID-19 surge. We wouldn’t want those valuable beds to be taken because of the cruise ship.”
The Zaandam was scheduled to dock in Chile for the “half-cruise” part of its South American journey, but it was turned away. Then, Panama said it would not permit the ship to cross the Panama Canal to get to the eastern United States, reversing itself.
Now, as it heads toward South Florida, its fate isn’t any clearer. The Coast Guard and local officials haven’t agreed on a plan with the cruise line on how the sick passengers and crew members would be treated if allowed to dock. County officials were incensed Wednesday.
“They have the passengers, they have the responsibility,” said Broward County Commissioner Mark Bogen. “They are the ones not submitting a proper plan.”
Said Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman in Seattle late Wednesday: “We have submitted a number of rounds of our plan, made revisions following ongoing conversations with the Unified Command and the most recent version was just submitted 20 minutes ago to the Unified Command.”
As the novel coronavirus has spread on board, four people have died aboard the Zaandam, including an American. Two of the deaths were blamed on the coronavirus. A few days ago, Holland America moved more than 800 healthy Zaandam passengers to the Rotterdam ship, helping balance the workload for the crews.
The county’s mayor had called a meeting for Thursday morning to discuss a final plan from the cruise line. A memo outlined by the cruise line called for sending guests home on commercial flights and charter flights, and Floridians driven to their houses.
But the county is still waiting for an official plan that would be binding, including details about who would pay for what, an outline of the medical plan, and talks about security.
That county meeting was abruptly canceled by county staff Wednesday afternoon because authorities said no plan has been submitted.
“As these discussions continue, it is premature to hold a workshop at this time. A workshop on this issue will be convened once the facts warrant it,” said Annika Ashton, Broward’s deputy attorney.
Elvejord, of Holland America, said the cruise line had “not been made aware” that the meeting is canceled.
Zaandam and Rotterdam combined have 1,250 guests on board, including 311 Americans from 19 states; 52 of those are from Florida. Nine are from South Florida.
Passengers on board haven’t been given more information.
“The captain has only said there are multiple levels of agencies working toward a solution,” Cliff Kolber, of Miramar, who is on the Rotterdam with his wife, said late Wednesday afternoon. “He sent every cabin champagne and chocolates last night and made a toast to our safe return. … We are about 40 miles northeast of Havana now. We stopped earlier this morning off the coast of Cuba to transfer a nurse and oxygen to the Zaandam.”
Port Everglades also is a destination for several other ships carrying sick people.
Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess, which has a “higher-than-normal” number of people with flu-like symptoms, plans to arrive at Port Everglades on Saturday after a service call in Bridgetown, Barbados, on Tuesday night.
And two more cruise ships with sick people aboard were headed overnight to Port Everglades. On Wednesday afternoon, at least 15 ships were stationed off the coast of South Florida, according to myshiptracking.com, a website that keeps an eye on ships’ locations.
The vessels seemed stationed off shore, most of them carrying only crew members aboard. It was unclear exactly how many, if any, had passengers aboard. Some of the ships were traveling as slow as 3 knots or less, a turtle crawl for ships that size.
The Celebrity Silhouette and Caribbean Princess have some crew members who are sick with influenza-like symptoms.
Four of the Silhouette’s crew members are sick but in stable condition. They were placed in isolation, but haven’t been tested for the coronavirus, and it was not known if tests were available. The Caribbean Princess reports having at least one crew member in isolation because of an influenza-like illness.
Neither ship has passengers on board.
Celebrity Silhouette docked Wednesday. The Coast Guard denied entry to the Caribbean Princess and it remains in the waters outside U.S. territory.
The Coast Guard had initially denied Celebrity Silhouette from entering American waters, but ultimately cleared the ship for entry after receiving more information from the ship’s parent company, Celebrity Cruises.
The Coast Guard concluded there would be enough done to ensure safety, including allowing only healthy crew members to be taken directly to Miami International Airport for international flights, according to Glenn Wiltshire, acting port director, in an email early Wednesday to county commissioners.
Wiltshire’s email didn’t elaborate on what would done for the sick people or the safety precautions.
The Caribbean Princess was told to not enter the U.S. until it provided the Coast Guard more information.
“Since there was insufficient information provided by the cruise line on the nature of the illness and potential exposure pathways to other crew members that may be scheduled to debark the vessel, the US Coast Guard denied entry of the vessel to US territorial waters until a plan that addresses the medical situation aboard the vessel is received and approved,” he wrote.
The Coast Guard is now directing ships registered in the Bahamas to seek aid from that country first, even if the ships are owned by U.S.-based companies. The agency simply can’t keep up with the strain on its resources, according to a public memo.
The Coast Guard says ships carrying more than 50 persons on board should prepare to care for those aboard with influenza-like illnesses “for an indefinite period of time” rather than relying on the Coast Guard to evacuate sick passengers.
(Sun Sentinel staff writer Susannah Bryan contributed to this report.)
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