By Agence France-Presse
Passengers on a virus-stricken cruise liner entered the Panama Canal in Central America Sunday after they were told the company was still searching for a port which will allow them to disembark, even as they pleaded for help.
The Panama Canal Authority said the Zaandam liner had entered the canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, on Sunday afternoon after transferring healthy passengers to another ship and restocking supplies.
Holland America Line President Orlando Ashford admitted they were still searching for a port after the mayor of Fort Lauderdale — the ship’s intended destination — said the Florida city could not take the risk of accepting the passengers.
Ashford said in a video message the company was still trying to “figure out” where to disembark passengers from the stricken Zaandam liner — four of whom have died.
The situation was “difficult and unprecedented,” he said.
The Zaandam had been stuck in the Pacific Ocean since March 14 after dozens of the 1,800 people on board reported flu-like symptoms and several South American ports refused to let it dock.
Panama on Saturday reversed its decision to block the Zaandam from its canal, and said it would be allowed to transit from the Pacific to the Caribbean side for humanitarian reasons.
AFP / Ivan PISARENKO
Holland America’s cruise ship Zaandam (L) and the Rotterdam in Panama bay on March 28, 2020
But Fort Lauderdale mayor Dean Trantalis later said allowing the Zaandam to dock in his city was “completely unacceptable” as no special assurances had been given about the passengers’ onward travel arrangements.
“No assurances have been given that they will be escorted from the ship to either a treatment facility or placed in quarantine. This is completely unacceptable,” Trantalis said on Twitter.
“We cannot add further risk to our community amid our own health crisis here with thousands of people already testing positive for the deadly and contagious COVID-19 virus,” Trantalis said, adding that the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security “must create a plan to protect the community.”
– Ships ‘in tandem’ –
Passengers showing no signs of the virus were ferried a short distance to a sister ship, the Rotterdam, off Panama on Saturday. The Rotterdam had arrived from San Diego carrying medical staff, testing kits and food for the beleaguered vessel.
The Rotterdam also began transiting through the Panama Canal, authorities said Sunday.
AFP / Ivan PISARENKO
Passengers from Holland America’s cruise ship Zaandam are transferred to the Rotterdam off Panama on Saturday
In his message, Ashford said he wanted to dispel a “myth” that one was a “healthy ship” and the other a “sick ship.”
“Whether you’re isolated on the Zaandam or isolated on the Rotterdam, the way that we protect the health of those of you that are healthy is to make sure that you’re isolated safely while we figure out where it is that we’re going to take you.”
Apologizing to passengers, Ashford said: “It’s been a tough last several days.”