Passengers finally disembarking from coronavirus-stricken cruise ship

Apr 3, 2020

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Editor’s note: This is a developing story that has been continuously updated with the latest information. Some comments refer to earlier versions of the story.  

After being stuck at sea for nearly three weeks, more than 1,000 passengers from a coronavirus-stricken Holland America ship are finally on the way home.

Holland America has arranged five charter flights out of Fort Lauderdale departing today and Saturday to take the majority of Zaandam’s 1,250 passengers to major hubs where they then will connect to flights to their home states and countries.

Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades allowed the Zaandam and a sister ship that had taken aboard some of its passengers in recent days, Rotterdam, to dock Thursday afternoon after days of negotiations between the line and local, state and federal officials.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Zaandam had been on a multiweek odyssey that saw it turned away from multiple countries as it tried to end a sailing that began nearly a month ago.

Passengers initially boarded the vessel in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 for what was supposed to be a two-week cruise around South America. Just a day later, the U.S. government recommended that Americans stop cruising, and within days Holland America and other lines had announced they would suspend operations.

Countries such as Chile began turning away Zaandam even before the first cases of illness appeared on board, on March 22. In the end, the vessel had to sail more than 5,000 miles from the southern tip of South America to Fort Lauderdale to find a place to offload passengers.

Along the way, 250 passengers and crew reported influenza-like symptoms, which are similar to COVID-19 symptoms. Only a handful were tested for coronavirus, with the majority testing positive. Four passengers died during the long journey, with two of the dead passengers testing positive for the coronavirus.

Only passengers not experiencing symptoms of illness will be allowed on the charter flights, which will take them to airports in Atlanta, San Francisco, Toronto, Frankfurt and London.

Holland America already has transferred 14 passengers in critical condition to local hospitals. Several dozen more who are experiencing mild symptoms will remain on the ships until the symptoms pass. They then will be allowed to leave.

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In addition, several dozen passengers who are local Florida residents are being transferred to their homes in private cars.

All passengers have been told to self-quarantine for 14 days after they arrive home.

Zaandam’s arrival at Port Everglades was controversial in Florida among both residents and their elected leaders. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, initially opposed the idea of letting the ship dock in the state. Fort Lauderdale’s mayor, Dean Trantalis, suggested the vessel should be sent to a U.S. naval base. Both politicians later softened their stance.


Still, as recently as Thursday morning, the ship’s arrival remained in doubt. Local officials said early Thursday that the ship had conditional approval to dock, but an initial midday docking time placed on the Port Everglades schedule was later pushed back by several hours. The ship circled in a holding pattern off the coast of Florida for much of the day.

The docking approval required the agreement of Port Everglades’ Unified Command, which is made up of representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several local and state agencies.

Even President Trump got involved, urging Florida officials to find a solution.

“I’m going to do what’s right not only for us but for humanity,” the president said during a press briefing on March 31, just two days before the Zaandam and Rotterdam arrived. “These are two big ships, and they have a lot of very sick people.”

Related: Here’s how to cancel or postpone a cruise due to coronavirus

In a statement issued moments after Zaandam entered the harbor at Port Everglades, Holland America thanked President Trump, Governor DeSantis, the Unified Command and other local and state officials that it said helped resolve the situation.

“These travelers could have been any one of us or our families, unexpectedly caught in the middle of this unprecedented closure of global borders that happened in a matter of days and without warning,” Holland America president Orlando Ashford said in a statement. “We are so happy to be able to get our guests home and assist those few who need additional medical services.”

Related: Some cruise lines have canceled sailings through June 

The statement included a final update on the number of sick people on board the vessels. It said 107 passengers had reported influenza-like symptoms. That was a 10% increase from Wednesday and a 47% increase from Monday.

In addition, 143 crew have reported influenza-like symptoms, the line said. That was up 5% from Wednesday.

Holland America noted that many of the passengers and crew included in its illness counts no longer were experiencing symptoms. The totals include passengers and crew who fell ill several days ago but have since recovered.

Zaandam was just one of more than a dozen cruise ships that have been stuck at sea in recent weeks as countries around the world have closed their borders.

Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:

Featured image by Ivan Pisarenko/AFP/Getty Images 

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