More than two weeks after the new coronavirus was declared a pandemic, a cruise ship with hundreds of Canadian passengers remains at sea with dozens of ill people on board and four fatalities.
The MS Zaandam was looking to head to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after recently being granted permission to transit the Panama Canal, but whether it can dock is unclear.
The company, Holland America Line, says it’s still finalizing the details for where and when the cruise will disembark.
The Panama Canal Authority says the Zaandam, as well as another ship, had begun transiting the canal. While Panamanian officials said they would let the ships through the canal, Holland America Lines said it had not been given official permission and the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said he didn’t want it to dock near his city as planned, at least without extensive precautions.
Four “older” passengers have died on the ship, according to the operator, and there are 73 guests and 116 crew members on board with influenza-like illness. Two people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The company has transferred healthy passengers to a second ship, the MS Rotterdam, which is headed for the same port.
Jocelyne Parent, a 75-year-old Woodbridge, Ont., resident, is on board with a friend.
Michele Parent, her daughter, says Jocelyne’s only concern right now is getting home.
All passengers are currently self-isolating. The South America cruise departed Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7, just days before the federal government advised Canadians against all cruise travel. The MS Zaandam has 1,243 guests and 586 crew.
Jocelyne is not ill and is doing as well as she can be, according to her daughter, though she does have underlying health conditions.
READ MORE: Live updates — Coronavirus in Canada
“She’s keeping her spirits up for us, which is remarkable,” Michele said. “But they’re coping. They’re just managing. They have no other choice. I just spoke to her, and she said: ‘What options do we have? Do we fall apart? We have no option.'”
Jocelyne tried to cancel the trip, Michele explained, but at the time, there was very little news of the virus in South America — one confirmed case in Brazil, which was not a port of call — and the travel agency wasn’t offering a refund.
The voyage was supposed to end in San Antonio, Chile, on March 21. Already more than a week overdue, it will take several more days to reach Florida.
For Edmonton’s Paul Major and his wife Elly, it was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime.
It started off as a regular cruise vacation — with entertainment, luxury dinners and port visits. But then people started getting sick.
“We knew for a week or so as we were kind of moving north that there was people who weren’t well on board, both crew and passengers, but once we got here into Panama, that’s when the captain came on in the morning and said that four people passed away in the night.”
When he spoke with Global News, the vessel had been sitting in Panama’s harbour for three days prior to receiving permission to use the canal.
According to the cruise company, passengers were last off the ship in Chile on March 14. Chile later denied the vessel permission to dock.
“If we had known that there were concerns about the cruise and the fact that we might have trouble getting off the cruise again, we would have simply bought our flights and come right back home again,” Major said.
Global Affairs Canada says it’s aware of 248 Canadians on board — all passengers except one crew member. The agency says no Canadians are among the four people who have succumbed to illness on board.
“Additional medical supplies were delivered yesterday for those on the MS Zaandam. We continue to engage with the passengers and Holland America regarding these ships,” consular officials said in a press release.
The Canadian government has organized flights to repatriate Canadians stranded in China due to the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as on cruises off the coasts of Japan and the United States. The passengers were sent to facilities for mandatory quarantine, and no one who was displaying symptoms was allowed to come home.
In a video message to passengers, Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford said the company won’t leave “any stone unturned” in figuring how to get passengers safely back home.
Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades, where the MS Zaandam is looking to dock, had not yet granted approval for it to do as of Sunday.
“Holland (America) must submit a plan prior to arrival that addresses a long list of Unified Command requirements for entry into a port,” the port authority said on Twitter.
Michele, whose mother is aboard the ship, said she has been in contact with officials in Florida and has been active on social media in order to drum up some support.
The mayor of Fort Lauderdale has expressed concerns about the vessel docking in the area.
“No assurances have been given that they will be escorted from the ship to either a treatment facility or placed in quarantine,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said. “This is completely unacceptable!”