Coronavirus: Passengers disembark from cruise ships in Florida
Two cruise liners embroiled in a bitter dispute over coronavirus cases on board began letting passengers disembark in Florida on Friday as the UK Government moved to fly home 200 Britons caught up in the saga.
The Zandaam and its sister ship the Rotterdam had been at the centre of a battle between federal and state authorities, with the Zandaam reporting more than a dozen Covid-19 cases, plus some 190 people with flu symptoms.
Florida officials had been reluctant to allow the ships to dock – for fear that taking more Covid-19 patients would further burden the state’s already-stretched hospitals – until US president Donald Trump intervened to approve the docking on humanitarian grounds.
Four people have died aboard the Zandaam, including two officially diagnosed with the coronavirus.
The four included 75-year-old Briton John Carter, who died on March 22. His cause of death has yet to be officially revealed, but he was reported to have been on a ventilator in his last days.
The Zandaam, which began its cruise in Buenos Aires on March 7, was refused entry to several Latin American ports after its coronavirus cases emerged.
It then made a rendezvous with the Rotterdam to transfer its healthy passengers to that ship, before the two vessels transited the Panama Canal last Monday to sail for Florida.
On Friday, passengers from both ships were finally allowed to touch dry land in Fort Lauderdale, where the Zaandam’s cruise had originally been scheduled to end this Tuesday.
Fourteen critically ill patients were wheeled off the Zaandam on stretchers to be taken to local hospitals before their fellow passengers disembarked, with Florida residents allowed off first.
Asymptomatic patients, after being screened and cleared by paramedics, were taken by bus directly to the local airport, escorted by police officers on motorcycles.
Paramedics and airline workers wore protective suits and masks as they processed passengers, with the first planes leaving for Toronto, Atlanta and San Francisco, according to local officials.
Before disembarking from the ships, passengers received instructions to wear face masks at all times when travelling and to go immediately into 14 days of self-quarantine when they arrived home.
The British passengers from the ships are expected to start arriving home at the weekend.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are working closely with the tour operator, Holland America Line, to finalise flight arrangements for British nationals to return to the UK. Details will be available in due course.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that the Government was “determined to help Britons stranded abroad” and that it would “work with British Airways to keeps flights running, so travelling Brits can get back to the UK”.
Sheriff Gregory Tony, of Fort Lauderdale’s Broward County, dispatched more than 70 officers to disembark and transport the passengers.
“It’s a lot of manpower. But it’s worth it. We don’t want to have people dying on ships,” Mr Tony said.
He said the vessels had been turned away enough, adding the Zaandam “wasn’t some pirate ship … These are our brothers and sisters on this planet.”
The Holland America line thanked Mr Trump and Florida officials for allowing their two ships to dock.
“These travellers 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,” Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, 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. The Covid-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our shared humanity, and we must do everything we can to ensure we continue to act in ways consistent with our common human dignity.”
The latest development regarding the two cruise ships come as authorities in Mexico allowed 46 British citizens to disembark from another cruise ship off its Caribbean coast and fly home on Wednesday.
And some 1,000 passengers remain isolated in their cabins on another ship near Florida.
The Coral Princess has 12 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and is still at sea east of the Bahamas, its operator Princess Cruises said in a statement.