FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It was, in the end, the only moral decision Broward County could make — allow the Holland America cruise ships Zaandam and Rotterdam to dock at Port Everglades while doing everything possible to make sure that their passengers, including scores who suffered coronavirus symptoms, would not burden the county’s hospitals at this critical time.
Allowing the ships to dock showed “the good side of Broward County,” Mayor Dale Holness said.
But reaching that conclusion was not without controversy.
Four passengers on the Zaandam had died before Thursday afternoon, when the vessel finally docked in Fort Lauderdale after days of floating at sea with nowhere to go, other ports having turned it away. Throughout the trip, 233 passengers and crew members became ill.
For more than a week, debate raged in Broward over whether to allow the Zaandam and Rotterdam to dock or to pass the burden to some other community, one not already coping as the epicenter of the state’s novel coronavirus outbreak.
Publicly, citizens questioned whether the cruise line was irresponsible when the Zaandam first set sail from Argentina on March 7 on a scheduled 14-day journey, while the worldwide concerns about the disease caused by the novel coronavirus were escalating. Within days, the U.S. government was blocking one cruise ship off the coast of California while another ship due into Port Everglades was delayed for a day even without a single positive coronavirus case.
Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America, said in newspaper opinion article that the passengers and crew were “unfortunate souls unwittingly caught up in the fast-changing health, policy and border restrictions that have rapidly swept the globe.”
In Broward, county commissioners were forced to decide whether to provide respite or rejection. Some balked at the idea of letting sick ships in while local resources were already stretched thin. Others recognized what they considered an international humanitarian crisis that needed resolution.
“I know fear makes people look at things differently, but we have to look at fear in the eyes and do the right thing,” Commissioner Beam Furr said last week, comparing the plight of passengers to a ship of Jewish refugees denied entry to the U.S. in the 1930s. “We do have a responsibility to our fellow man. We are our brother’s keeper. This is one of those times when you step up and do the right thing.”
A week later, the governor signaled willingness to let the ships in. “Clearly, we’re going to be willing to accept any Floridians who are on board,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday. “My understanding is that most of the passengers are foreign nationals.”
The Zaandam and Rotterdam combined had 1,250 passengers, including 311 Americans from 19 states. There are 52 Floridians, nine of them from South Florida.
In the end, the port was opened and the ships were welcomed, but not without conditions to protect the community.
In a statement late Thursday, Holness acknowledged the controversy. “Residents have been understandably concerned about potential impacts in our community,” he said. “This is a humanitarian situation, and the County Commission’s top priority is protecting our 1.9 million residents while providing a contained disembarkation option for people on board who need to get safely home.”
The plan once the ships reached shore was to have passengers who aren’t sick or showing flu-like symptoms escorted off and allowed no contact with the public. Private buses, paid for by the cruise company, were to take them to empty tarmacs for charter flights.
The Floridians were to be driven home, except for those living north of Ocala, who were scheduled to go home on charter flights.
The Zaandam docked at Port Everglades late Thursday afternoon. Workers in white protective suits zipped along the dock in yellow forklifts, presumably headed toward a cargo area.
Bystanders could see the ship heading into the port as a cluster of ambulances were lined up for its arrival. About 13 passengers and one crew member needed urgent care.
The Rotterdam was close behind, arriving about a half-hour later. Officials expect the process of disembarking passengers to last through Saturday.
Although the cruise line initially said “no more than 10 people would need immediate critical care in Broward County,” that number is 14, according to the agreement reached Thursday between the cruise line and the county.
Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale agreed to accept 10 patients and Larkin Community Hospital in Miami will take up to four. The first of the patients arrived at Broward Health shortly before 7 p.m., lying on a gurney and covered by a white sheet, wheeled in by attendants wearing face masks.
Within the next, nine other patients were brought in by ambulance. The hospital would not provide updates on their conditions.
“With people both sick and dying, we had no choice but to bring them to medical treatment,” said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis. “Knowing that proper protocols can be achieved, never again should our communities ever have to choose between caring for others and caring for ourselves. This is how we will defeat this disease, by everyone working together towards a common goal.”
The four passengers who died on the journey were aboard the Zaandam; 233 passengers and crew members had been ill. The bodies of the dead were still aboard the ship Thursday evening, kept in a morgue. The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office would say only that “we will be going to ship when instructed to do so” to retrieve the bodies.
Cliff Kolber, a passenger aboard the Rotterdam, said the captain announced that the ships were approved to dock Thursday afternoon. A passenger aboard the Zaandam said that ship’s captain also announced the news to passengers and the ship began moving just after 3 p.m.
About 4 a.m. Thursday, the ships had reached the waters just off Broward County and traveled north, offshore from Palm Beach County, and then went back south, said Kolber, a resident of Miramar who was on the Rotterdam with his wife. The ships were floating in international waters for hours.
“I had gone outside and it looked like we stopped but the tracker shows we are doing a big loop,” he said Thursday afternoon.
Penny Pompei, of Singer Island in Palm Beach County, was on the Zaandam with her husband. She said passengers packed their luggage, which crew members were picking up.
“We’re going around in circles,” she said after lunchtime. “I can see Fort Lauderdale, I can see the skyline,” she said. She said she wished she could simply have jumped overboard to swim to shore. “It’s very tempting except I know I can’t swim 12 miles. It’s close enough to see and almost you can touch. But we can’t get there.”
Carnival Corp., the parent company of Holland America, and the Unified Command — which includes the Coast Guard and Broward Sheriff’s Office — had been negotiating over the details of letting the Zaandam and the Rotterdam dock. It included logistics such as how the evacuation would work and who would pay for what.
The 21-page agreement promises to not take up more than 15 hospital beds in the county. “This in no way restricts Carnival from utilizing medical resources outside of Broward County,” the agreement reads.
And, “Carnival will advise all passengers who disembark either vessel that they must quarantine at home for 14 days (for Florida residents) or leave Florida immediately and self-isolate for not less than 14 days,” the agreement reads.
The agreement also promises that no passengers with symptoms will be allowed off the ships — and they’ll have their temperature taken by medical staff before being allowed off. About 26 passengers currently have symptoms, according to the documents, and about 50 crew members.
Other stipulations of the agreement: Luggage will be sprayed with disinfectant spray by ship’s housekeeping team before taken off the ships, and then sprayed a second time at the terminals.
Most of the flights are scheduled for Friday — starting with a 10:30 a.m. flight to Toronto — but a flight to Heathrow Airport isn’t leaving until Saturday. There are 226 people who will be on that flight to London.
Gov. DeSantis had originally been against letting the Zaandam dock, concerned that it would overwhelm South Florida hospitals that already have an influx of seriously ill patients. On Thursday afternoon, he said the Zaandam and Rotterdam docked only after government officials carved out “a real thoughtful plan.”
“Just so people understand, there’s probably 25 of these ships out there. Two of them, these two, have U.S. citizens on board,” he said. “We have an interest in making sure those folks come safely. Some of these other ships are all foreign nationals, that’s something that would be difficult to accommodate in Florida given what we’re facing in South Florida.”
Earlier this month, the Zaandam was scheduled to dock in Chile for the “half-cruise” part of its South American journey. But it was turned away on March 15.
Then, Panama said it would not permit the ship to cross the Panama Canal to get to the eastern United States, reversing itself.
Numerous other countries refused to assist as fears raged over the new coronavirus.
Four people 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.
Juan Huergo and his wife were aboard the Rotterdam as it docked about 5:30 p.m. Thursday. “The front desk called us an hour ago to be ready ‘cause we’re going to be one of the first ones to get off,” said Huergo, of Orlando.
“We’re ecstatic,” he said. “It’s a story that didn’t seem to have an end. We are excited to be home. We have a 31/2-hour drive and we want to get home and see our son.”
(Staff writers Brooke Baitinger, Juan Ortega and Cindy Krischer Goodman contributed to this report.)
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