(12:10 p.m. EDT) -- Holland America Line has put out a plea for a U.S. port to allow its returning ships, Zaandam and Rotterdam, as well as other cruise ships still out at sea, to dock and debark passengers who have been on vessels for several weeks.
"Nations are justifiably focused on the COVID-19 crisis unfolding before them. But they've turned their backs on thousands of people left floating at sea," HAL President Orlando Ashford wrote in a blog published on the Holland America site. The piece also has been published as an op-ed in the Sun-Sentinel, the local newspaper for Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
The piece, called "A Humanitarian Crisis: Response to Cruise Ships Stranded at Sea Tests Our Deepest Human Values," is based on the situation that Holland America is currently experiencing with Zaandam. The ship left March 7 on a South American cruise that departed Buenos Aires, Argentina, several days before cruise lines worldwide suspended service because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's important to remember passengers and crew did nothing wrong. When voyages began in early March, South and North America had few confirmed COVID-19 cases," Ashford wrote. "The World Health Organization (WHO) was advising against travel restrictions and the Americas weren't affected by travel or health advisories. Travel in all forms continued to bustle across the continents as recently as mid-March -- albeit with more personal hygiene reminders."
The cruise was originally scheduled to end March 21 in San Antonio, Chile. In the op-ed, Ashford noted that as soon as the cruise lines voluntarily suspended service March 13, the line quickly sought approval to disembark guests to return to their countries.
"Chile announced the closure of their borders on March 16, literally while Zaandam had been sitting in Punta Arenas for two days awaiting clearance for guests to disembark for flights home. Peru closed, as did Argentina, and the rest of the ports in South America. Repeated requests for humanitarian consideration were denied."
The first signs of flu-like illness didn't appear on Zaandam until March 22, one day after the cruise's original end date, Ashford wrote. "Despite countless desperate pleas in the following days, we were forbidden to medevac critically ill patients to shore-side hospitals (usually standard operating procedure for comprehensive care that ships aren't equipped to provide)."
Because the countries closed their borders, Holland America sent Rotterdam, a ship that had already debarked passengers, to rendezvous with Zaandam and provide medical aid, as well as tests for COVID-19. Over the weekend, Holland America Line transferred healthy passengers from the cruise ship Zaandam to another ship, Rotterdam, to allow better isolation conditions as both ships make their way through the Panama Canal back to the United States. Passengers have been spread out from inside cabins to staterooms with sunlight and verandas as they remain in isolation, he noted.
"Reducing the guest count on Zaandam helps available staff better serve those remaining on board. No guests who have been ill or symptomatic were moved, nor were their close contacts. And no Zaandam crew moved to Rotterdam. Zaandam received additional medical supplies including COVID-19 tests, face masks for guests and personal protective equipment for crew, as well as medical staff. This will help, but patients will need to get home for additional medical care," Ashford wrote.
As of March 30, 76 passengers and 117 crew on Zaandam have flu-like illness, including eight people who tested positive for COVID-19, Ashford wrote; four passengers have passed away, though it has not been determined whether the deaths were linked to coronavirus. "We have seen a notable and steady decline in cases of the last 48 hours, which shows the immediate actions we took have helped contain spread."
There are 1,167 healthy passengers and 1,130 healthy crew across the two ships. The two ships are traveling in tandem so they can help each other.
The Panamanian government allowed the ships to transit the canal, and that took place over the weekend. Where the ship will eventually dock, though, is under debate.
The line had intended to dock in Port Everglades at Fort Lauderdale, where it runs most of its south Florida cruises.
On Sunday, though, Port Everglades released a statement: "To clarify media reports, Holland America Line has not yet received official approval to transit the Panama Canal, nor to enter Port Everglades. Should Holland America receive approval to transit the Panama Canal, it would take about three days for the ship to reach South Florida. Holland American must then submit a plan prior to arrival that addresses a long list of Unified Command requirements for entry into a Port."
The mayor of Fort Lauderdale suggested that the ship dock at a U.S. Navy base instead. The Florida government has also said the cruise ships should not dock in the state.
The entire situation requires a humanitarian response, Ashford said.
"It's easy to condemn those who are unhelpful and unwelcoming during times of need. But what if instead we focus on the type of society we strive to be, where nations share a collective responsibility to help others in peril? Because these travelers could have been any one of us or our families -- caught up by a fast-changing scenario nobody foresaw.
"The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.
"Given the opportunity, I am hopeful that all of us will follow the lead of our Panamanian friends and help our neighbors."