Passengers on COVID-19-stricken cruise ships hope to be on land again soon


Two cruise ships with Canadian passengers aboard finally docked Thursday in Florida after weeks at sea and days of negotiations with initially resistant local officials.
The MS Zaandam and a sister ship, the MS Rotterdam, were both given permission to unload passengers at Port Everglades after reaching an agreement with officials who feared they would divert needed resources from a region that has seen a spike in virus cases.
Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Canadians would stay in isolation upon their return to Canada. Trudeau said a chartered plane would carry asymptomatic Canadian passengers aboard the ships home in the coming days, though he didn’t provide an exact timeline.
But Catherine McLeod of Ottawa, who was on the Zaandam with her husband before they were transferred to the Rotterdam, said she was preparing to come home, even before American officials gave the ships the go-ahead to dock in Florida.
“It’s kind of a done deal we’re getting off this pleasure cruise,” McLeod said in a phone interview from her cabin. “So we’re very, very hopeful. I will feel 100 per cent better once the plane lifts off the runway. It’s going to be one hell of a Hallelujah hoot going up then.”
She said she and her husband were waiting for a medical check-up to make sure they remained asymptomatic before getting their “disembarkation” papers.
“I think what they’re trying to do is get our fannies on a bus and outta here ASAP,” McLeod said.
Holland America, which operates the cruises, said U.S. officials at the local, state and national levels cleared both ships to dock on Thursday afternoon, and would allow all guests fit to travel to disembark.
“Guests who still have symptoms will remain on board and disembark at a later date to be finalized after they have fully recovered,” the cruise line said.
Global Affairs Canada said the passengers would be screened after the ships docked. It said passengers showing no symptoms will travel to Canada on a flight chartered by the cruise line.
“Once here, they will be screened again and subject to mandatory 14-day self-isolation,” the department said in a release. “Passengers who display symptoms after disembarking the ships will be treated locally.”
The docking plan indicated that Florida residents would leave the ship first, with the disembarkation of all passengers not concluding until Friday night.
For nearly three weeks, passengers have not been able to leave the ships, and four elderly passengers have died on the Zaandam — at least two from COVID-19, ship owner Carnival Cruise Lines said in a statement.
There are 442 guests and 603 crew on the Zaandam, and 808 guests and 583 crew on the Rotterdam, which was sent last week to take in some of the passengers and provide assistance to the Zaandam since it was denied permission to dock at ports in South America.
Holland America said 97 guests and 136 crew members on the ships have developed flu-like symptoms.
Initially, 248 Canadians were aboard the MS Zaandam, Global Affairs has said.
As for what happens when they return to Canada, the details remain fuzzy.
“My understanding is they will be flown home on a charter flight but we are still looking for those details and we will ensure they are isolated when they get home,” Trudeau said.
He did not specifically say if passengers from the ships will be required to remain in quarantine at federal quarantine centres, like passengers from the Diamond Princess and Grand Princess were in February and March.
Chris Joiner of Ottawa, who remains on the Zaandam, said in written messages that he’s been told he may be able to disembark on Friday if Florida grants the necessary permissions.
“People are so bored. Some sleep all the time. I mean, booze is free but you can’t get drunk every day,” Joiner said.
He said the once-lively cruise ship has quieted in the last week.
“The only thing you hear is food being delivered, dishes picked up and the odd knock when your garbage can is emptied or they dropped off clean towels or booze,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Toronto couple who were transferred over to the Rotterdam said they were trying to keep their heads up before ultimately putting this disaster behind them.
“Here we are on day 24 of a 14-day cruise!” Kevin and Jeannette Balgopal wrote in an email on Wednesday.
They said the cruise company and captain were providing as much reassurance as they could under the circumstances.
The couple has been confined to their cabin for fear a half-hour of daily “fresh air time” would “jeopardize any attempts to get us to dock,” the Balgopals wrote. “Life is not easy.”
— With file from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2020.
Liam Casey and Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press