FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Four older passengers have died aboard Holland America’s Zaandam, a ship that is carrying nearly 140 sick passengers and hopes to dock at Port Everglades.
The South America cruise had started off with such promise weeks ago, offering a journey full of magnificent views and upscale dining. After seven days of the 14-day trip, things started to go badly as the rate of new coronavirus infections began to increase around the world.
On Friday, Holland America confirmed what the captain had announced to his passengers at 11 a.m.: Four passengers were dead. There was no official word whether the cause was coronavirus, but the cruise line confirmed the rate of illness aboard the ship had been multiplying throughout the week — with passengers and crew members plagued by influenza-like symptoms.
The Zaandam is scheduled to make 22 visits to Maine this year — once in Portland on Aug. 23, and 21 in Bar Harbor between May 8 and Oct. 24. One Zaandam visit scheduled in Bar Harbor for April 26 already has been canceled by Bar Harbor officials out of concern about the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A ban until July 1 on cruise ship operations in Canadian waters — which is part of the voyage itinerary for every large ship visit scheduled in Maine this summer — is expected to result in no large ships visiting Maine through at least the end of June.
By Friday, a Miramar couple on board Zaandam started skipping meals. They wouldn’t touch the napkins delivered by crew.
“To get a meal you have to open the door,” Cliff Kolber said. He said they were down to “maybe a meal a day. We’re going as long as we can without opening the door.”
“I am very scared to open my door,” said his wife, Doris Kolber.
The Kolbers didn’t get sick, but many others did, including having respiratory symptoms. On Thursday, several were tested for the new coronavirus and two people tested positive. The company didn’t say whether the two who tested positive were among the four passengers who died.
The ship was prohibited from disembarking in Chile and is now making its way to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, drawing the wrath of Broward’s County Commission, which is considering turning the ship away.
County officials said as the government that oversees Port Everglades, they have the authority to deny a ship permission to dock. The ship wants to arrive Monday.
Erik Elvejord, a Holland America spokesman, could not immediately say which countries the four dead people were from, or how their bodies would be removed from the ship. Of the ship’s plan, he said, “We continue to work with the Panamanian authorities on approval to transit the Panama Canal for sailing to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.”
There are two competing interests to ensure everyone’s safety: The government has quarantine rights, and Holland America has a contract to dock at Port Everglades, said John “Jack” Hickey, a Miami-based maritime trial attorney.
“The question is whether they should exercise that right. Just because you can turn it away or quarantine it does not mean you should,” he said. “There may be a better alternative, and the alternative is deal with the people on board.”
“The United States does not seem terribly prepared for this,” he said. “In a perfect world, we should say, ‘Yes, come here, dock here. We’ll institute strict procedures and segregate the sick with the not sick.’”
He says it’s a tough situation. “Eventually they’re going to have to port somewhere. You have to get the people off somewhere, and they’re going to have to deal with them.”
The Kolbers, who left on their South America cruise in early March, said the captain on the Zaandam said at 11 a.m. that healthy people over age 70 were being evacuated to a second ship called the Rotterdam. Nobody was allowed to call guest services to ask about themselves, the couple said.
“They said they are giving first priority to people with inside cabins and people over 70,” Cliff Kolber said. He is 72 and his wife is 65. Neither has any symptoms of the virus.
Although they could see the ship from their veranda, they were not among those permitted to leave.
“I’m optimistic we’ll get off. We don’t have to be the first,” Doris Kolber said.
But she is still among the lucky ones: “Four people left with expectations of a wonderful vacation and are not returning home.”
An Orlando husband and wife were chosen to be moved to the second ship, but from there they didn’t know where they’d go. Juan Huergo said the ship returned their passports and got a note slipped under the door that essentially said, “Eat your lunch, and pack your stuff and wear your face masks.”
“We’ve packed [and] are waiting for a knock on the door,” he said. “This is like winning the lottery!”
On Friday, Holland America said there were 53 guests and 85 crew members who have reported to Zaandam’s medical center with influenza-like illness symptoms. The numbers had steadily increased throughout the week, from just 77 a few days ago.
Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, who has said keeping hospital beds and equipment available for sick Broward residents is his priority, said Thursday that no county meeting has been called yet to take a vote to stop the ship.
He said he is waiting for the official plan “to be put forth by the Port Leadership, unified command and the cruise company.”
With the ship still days away, he also said he is waiting first to see if the ship will be allowed to pass through the Panama Canal, which is the only way to get to Fort Lauderdale.
“I continue to pray for the health and safety of all involved,” he said Friday.
While Udine has said he was frustrated anybody would take off on a cruise during the pandemic, Cliff Kolber said he thought they would be fine because their itinerary didn’t include Asia or Europe, and restrictions in Florida — from schools to businesses — didn’t begin until after the March 7 cruise began.
Still, they avoided ship shows to maintain social distancing: “We wanted to be as safe as we could,” he said. “We did the best we could to avoid staying around people.”
The Kolbers are confined to their room, waiting for the next intercom announcement. Cliff Kolber said the ship offered them a 50 percent refund, and another 50 percent discount on a future trip. “No plans to cruise again,” he said.
BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.