FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (AFP) — US President Donald Trump said Wednesday that authorities would evacuate passengers from a stranded cruise ship due to dock in Florida after being barred from several South American countries because of a coronavirus outbreak aboard.
Both the cruise ship Zaandam, where dozens of people have fallen ill, and its sister ship Rotterdam were due to enter US waters early Thursday ahead of their expected docking in Fort Lauderdale.
Trump said the US was “sending medical teams on board the ships” and taking people off, with foreigners sent home.
“We’re taking the Canadians off and giving them to Canadian authorities,” he said. “Same thing with the UK. But we have to help the people. They’re in big trouble.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who issued a stay-at-home order on Wednesday for Florida’s 21 million residents, had earlier stated he didn’t want the ships to come into port.
But late Wednesday he told Fox News network that he had not realized there were US citizens aboard.
The ships’ operator, Holland America Line, said it was awaiting confirmation that disembarkation will take place in Fort Lauderdale.
About 1,200 passengers who are not ill would be sent home on charter planes. They will be “transported in coaches that will be sanitized, with limited person-to-person contact and while wearing masks,” the company said.
Some 45 people with mild symptoms will remain aboard in isolation until they recover and 10 people requiring critical care will be taken ashore for treatment locally, the company said.
DeSantis, a Trump ally, had resisted calls to issue stay-at-home orders in Florida and likewise had said he didn’t want the additional burden of sick cruise ship passengers.
“I was told that these ships were all foreign nationals and that they had no connection to Florida. So I was just like, why would you just bring them to Florida?” the Republican said, explaining his earlier thinking.
“It turns out there are American citizens and we actually have Floridians.”
With nearly 7,000 coronavirus cases and 87 deaths, Florida — home to many retirees — has the fifth-most virus cases in the United States.
More than 30 other US states have already issued stay-at-home orders.
Holland America Line appealed to the US authorities on Monday to allow the two ships to dock, saying four passengers had already died and others were at risk.
“What happened to compassion and help thy neighbor?” Holland America president Orlando Ashford pleaded.
A total of 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew members are stranded at sea on the Zaandam and also on Rotterdam, which came to its sister ship’s aid last week, bringing supplies.
About 200 passengers and crew aboard the Zaandam had reported influenza-like illnesses and at least nine have tested positive for COVID-19, the company said initially.
The desperate situation aboard the Zaandam, which was not allowed to enter several South American ports, attracted worldwide publicity, but it is just one of several cruise liners seeking permission to dock at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
On Tuesday, Trump signaled he was ready to help, saying “there are people that are sick on the ship and we don’t want to be like, they’re going to be ghost ships. You know, people turn those ships away.”
The Zaandam, which left Buenos Aires on March 7, was originally meant to finish the trip in Chile on March 21, but changed course due to the virus and was scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale on April 7.
Rick De Pinho, a 53-year-old lawyer on the Rotterdam, told AFP he and his wife couldn’t wait to get off.
“We’re sitting ducks. And the longer people sit out here, the more chance somebody could get sick, and I know that four people already passed away,” he said.