With a flu-like illness outbreak, four dead and confirmed cases of COVID-19, it's been a horrific week for the 1,243 passengers — including 247 Canadians — stuck aboard the Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that was sailing off the coast of Panama.
Now, passengers can add more problems to the list: although Panama allowed the Zaandam to pass through the Panama Canal, passengers still don't know for certain where the cruise ship will dock, and when they'll be able to return home.
That's because while the ship has plans to dock and let passengers disembark in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., county officials in the region are concerned about letting in a coronavirus-hit ship.
"They're not wanting us there, so where are we going to go?" said passenger Cheryle Stothard of Toronto. She and her husband have been confined to their cabin for the past week, because of the illness outbreak.
"Going through the Panama Canal is useless if we can't get off in Florida," said the 71-year-old.
Since cutting short its South American cruise on March 14 due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the Zaandam has been seeking a place to dock so passengers can return home.
On Friday, Holland America announced that 138 passengers and crew have fallen ill with "influenza-like illness symptoms," and that four "older" passengers had died. The Zaandam is also carrying 586 crew members — one of whom is Canadian.
None of the dead is Canadian. Holland America didn't provide a cause of death for the four passengers but said that the ship tested "a number" of patients for COVID-19 on Thursday, and two were positive.
Passengers grew hopeful on the weekend after learning that the Zaandam could pass through the Panama Canal. Late Sunday, the ship began moving through the canal.
But Holland America's plan to then dock in Fort Lauderdale isn't a done deal because Broward County, which includes the city, has yet to give the green light.
Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine told CBC News that the county is already overrun with COVID-19 cases — more than 1,000 to date — so he's apprehensive about letting in a ship that will add to its problems.
"We're a hotspot here. Our medical facilities are taxed," said Udine. "If there are sick people that have to come off, I want them to be able to come off … but where are they going to go? What hospitals are going to be able to take them?"
'Somebody's got to let us dock'
Udine's apprehension is upsetting for passenger Margaret Tilley, who's desperate to return to her home in Nanaimo, B.C.
"Let's have a little compassion," said the 71-year-old. "It just doesn't seem right. Somebody's got to let us dock."
The Zaandam began its cruise on March 7 and had initially planned to dock on March 16 in Punta Arenas, Chile, to let passengers off early. However, the country refused to allow passengers to disembark, so the ship set course for Fort Lauderdale.
On Saturday, Tilley and her husband were moved to the Zaandam's sister ship, the Rotterdam. Holland America sent the ship, along with medical personnel and supplies, to rendezvous with the Zaandam and transfer "healthy" passengers to the Rotterdam.
– Margaret Tilley, passenger
Just let us get straight from the boat to a vehicle and to the airport. We don't want to stay in Fort Lauderdale.
Both ships got permission to enter the Panama canal. Tilley said she wants Broward County to know that the healthy Canadians onboard won't be a burden and just want to get home.
"Just let us get straight from the boat to a vehicle and to the airport. We don't want to stay in Fort Lauderdale."
Udine said that all the passengers would have to be quarantined upon arrival, because some could be asymptomatic.
"There's a lot of things that are going to need to be worked out by this cruise ship before they simply get disembarking in Broward County."
Udine said the county will review a plan for how Holland America will handle the situation and likely make a decision soon.
Meanwhile, more passengers are reporting illnesses. Stothard said that she and her husband Tony have both developed a runny nose and cough. That means they must remain in their cabin, on board the Zaandam along with other ill passengers, who are in isolation.
"We've got to get off," said Stothard. "The longer we stay on here, the more cases we're going to have."
Why did they go on a cruise?
Some CBC readers wondered why passengers boarded a cruise on March 7 when COVID-19 was spreading globally.
CBC News asked several Canadian passengers aboard the Zaandam this question. They responded that when they started their journey, there were very few COVID-19 cases in South America.
The continent didn't have any reported cases until one was confirmed in Brazil on Feb. 26.
Some passengers also said that, when they were set to begin their trip, there was no opportunity to get a refund.
Tilley and her husband left Nanaimo on Feb. 28 and travelled for a week in Argentina before their cruise. She said only in hindsight does she see the warning signs.
'[The virus] was in China," she said about that time period. "We thought South America would be safer."
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