When Rick and Wendy de Pinho left Buenos Aires on March 7 onboard the Holland America Line cruise ship MS Zaandam, things felt “perfectly normal.” The New Jersey couple were concerned about the spread of coronavirus, they tell TIME, but at the time of their departure there were few confirmed cases in South America and the cruise line had assured them that steps were being taken to protect guests, including enhanced passenger screenings and increased cleaning protocol.
Three weeks later, however, and things are far from normal. Over the past month, COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, has spread worldwide and been classified by the World Health Organization as a pandemic.
By March 13, every major cruise line had temporarily suspended its operations, leaving ships mid-voyage, like the Zaandam, scrambling to find ways to get passengers home. Multiple South American countries have since rejected the Zaandam‘s request to dock and allow passengers to disembark.
The Zaandam is also one of multiple ships that have been struck by coronavirus. In a Thursday statement, the ship’s operator Holland America Line, confirmed that at least 107 guests and 143 crew members had reported “flu-like symptoms,” and that nine passengers aboard had tested positive for COVID-19. Four passengers died, Holland America also confirmed to TIME. According to the AP, two of those deaths can be attributed to COVID-19. (Holland America Line said it could not provide additional medical details due to HIPPA laws.)
On March 28, 1,450 passengers and crew who had passed health screenings were transferred to another Holland America ship, the MS Rotterdam, in an attempt to lessen the load on the Zaandam’s crew. The de Pinhos were among the passengers transferred. More than 300 Americans are aboard the two ships.
After weeks of uncertainty, the Zaandam and Rotterdam were finally given clearance to dock in Florida’s Port of Everglades on Thursday, and guests who were fit to travel were given clearance to disembark.
Rick de Pinho tells TIME that some people came to greet the passengers as the ship pulled up to the dock, and the sight caused some passengers to cry. “It made me feel proud of our country and people. One gentleman was saluting the ship,” he tells TIME in a WhatsApp message.
Passengers will undergo health screening and pass through U.S. Customs and Border Protection as they disembark the ship, according to a statement from Holland America Line released Thursday. The process is expected to be completed by Friday evening. The statement said those who need “immediate care” at local health systems will be prioritized. Guests who are cleared to travel will then transfer directly on buses that take them to airports, and the majority of passengers will leave on flights chartered by the cruise lines. The AP reports guests won’t enter the terminal.
Guests who still have symptoms will remain on board the ship and leave after they have fully recovered “and meet the CDC guidelines for being fit to travel,” the statement said. None of the crew from the Rotterdam or the Zaandam will disembark the ship.
It’s been a long journey for the passengers, who have been isolated to their rooms since March 22 and had received mixed messages as to whether they’d be allowed to dock in the United States.
On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had said the state would accept Floridians who were aboard the Zaandam, but did not commit to taking people from other U.S. states or nationalities, per CNN. And on Monday, DeSantis faced criticism after telling Fox News that the state “cannot afford” to have coronavirus-stricken “foreigners” “dumped” into south Florida. As of Thursday afternoon Eastern Time, Florida had at least 9,008 confirmed cases of the virus and at least 144 confirmed deaths, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University.
After multiple countries turned away the ship last week, Orlando Ashford, the president of Holland America Line had urged nations to not “turn their backs on thousands of people left floating at sea,” stressing that he fears “lives are at risk” In an op-ed published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Monday.
“It’s been a rollercoaster… Are we able to dock? Are we not?” Wendy de Pinho told TIME on March 31, adding that she and her husband regularly call other passengers aboard the ship to check in with them. “It’s the fear of the unknown. If you’re not already sick, this can really cause you to get sick.”
Emily Spinder Brazell, a passenger aboard the Rotterdam from Virginia, told TIME via Facebook Messenger on March 31, “We feel like the ship is doing the best they can to take care of us but we feel like the governments of the world have been unwilling to help.” Brazell adds that she has been inspired by the Rotterdam‘s captain, who she says told passengers “he recognized that we are going through tough times but we are on a humanitarian mission.”
“I know it will be helpful for us to leave even though we’re leaving sick people behind because it will put less stress on the ship and crew,” Brazell said in the Facebook message. “My heart will be in this with them until they’re all well and home.”
But the Zaandam and Rotterdam are not the only cruise ships still sailing. On Tuesday, Carnival Corp., which owns nine cruise lines including Holland America, Princess Cruises and Costa Cruises, told the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission that it had more than 6,000 passengers on ships still at sea, although only a portion of these vessels are headed to the U.S.
Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess is currently headed towards Fort Lauderdale, Fl., and has at least 12 positive cases of COVID-19 onboard, per an April 2 statement from the cruise line. It’s also reported a “higher-than-normal” number of passengers with flu-like symptoms. Guests aboard the ship are self-isolating in their rooms. It’s estimated to arrive on Saturday.
A spokesperson for the trade group the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) told TIME on Wednesday that there are around 14 CLIA member ships off the South Florida coast that contain no passengers but are still being supported by crew.
On Sunday, March 29, the U.S. Coast Guard released a safety bulletin that directed all foreign-flagged passenger vessels impacted by coronavirus — including cruise ships — carrying over 50 people to “increase their medical capabilities” in order to treat sick passengers for an “indefinite” period of time. “This is necessary as shore-side medical facilities may reach full capacity and lose the ability to accept and effectively treat additional critically-ill patients,” the guidance said.
The Coast Guard also told foreign-flagged ships “that loiter beyond U.S. territorial seas” to send severely ill passengers to the countries where the vessels are registered, before turning to the U.S.. The Coral Princess is registered to Bermuda, a Carnival Corp. spokesperson tells TIME. (The Zaandam and Rotterdam are registered to the Netherlands, a spokesperson from Holland America Line tells TIME.)
According to NPR, registering ships in foreign countries is par for the course in the cruise industry; such registrations are a way companies can avoid some U.S. tax, environmental, and employment laws. In its bulletin, the Coast Guard specifically directed ships registered to the Bahamas — a country to which many cruise ships are registered — to seek medical assistance in the island nation before turning to medical facilities in the U.S.. Per the Associated Press, however, hospital capacity in the Bahamas is still limited due to the destruction caused by last September’s Hurricane Dorian.
The Coast Guard’s guidance impacts the Seventh District Area of Responsibility, which includes Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Puerto Rico. In the bulletin, the Coast Guard also said the move was partially to help “mitigate the potential of overwhelming local medical resources.”
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“We have significant medical facilities and capabilities onboard our ships. However, there are rare situations when the medical needs exceed our onboard capabilities,” a spokesperson for Carnival Corp., the parent company of Holland America, tells TIME in a statement. “In those cases, we follow USCG guidance and direction regarding an evaluation of the patient and need to medically evacuate — and we will continue to do so. We value our relationship with the Coast Guard and we fully understand these are unprecedented times.”
A spokesperson for trade group the Cruise Lines International Association tells TIME in a statement that, “[We] are in conversations with the U.S. Coast Guard and other national and global authorities on an ongoing basis to achieve our mutual objectives—to do the right thing for people, passengers and crew. Since the cruise industry’s voluntary suspension of operations was announced, teams of people have been working day and night to coordinate a safe and orderly return to port for passengers and crew on the few remaining ships at sea, as well to do the right thing for crew that are supporting ships that are in full suspension.”
While the passengers of the Rotterdam and Zaandam may have finally been allowed to disembark, it’s not immediately clear what will happen to those aboard the Coral Princess.
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