“I couldn’t begin to tell you how happy we are,” said passenger Chris Joiner, 59, from Orleans, Ontario.
He and his wife Anna are on board the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that has been sailing off the coast of South America and the Caribbean for more than two weeks, looking for a place to dock.
“It was a long, long trip – the worst experience of our lives,” said Joiner. “Thank goodness it’s finally over. “
The Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam, carry 1,243 passengers, including 247 Canadians. The ships are scheduled to arrive in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday.
Local authorities previously refused to allow the two ships to dock, the Zaandam having confirmed on board cases of COVID-19 and several passengers requiring hospital care.
Four Zaandam passengers died after the ship was struck by a flu-like illness in mid-March. Two of the deceased later tested positive for COVID-19, and Holland America has yet to explain how the other two died. Several other people on board tested positive for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The Rotterdam and its crew joined the Zaandam last week, hiring more than half of its passengers to provide some relief.
Several Canadian passengers have told CBC News that they have been told to pack, as well as carry-on baggage for a few days, as their large bags will be shipped home.
“Last night we were told to pack up, so we knew something was looming,” said Catherine McLeod, 69, of Nepean, Ontario. ” I am relieved. I can’t wait to go back to my bed. “
She said the passengers were told they would disembark, undergo a health check and go through US customs before returning to their ship for further instructions.
“I doubt very much that we are leaving today because we have not been told anything,” said McLeod. “We weren’t given a flight number or anything like that. “
“It has been a nightmare”
The Zaandam began its cruise to South America on March 7, but the trip was cut short a week later, on March 14, amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. The plan was to allow passengers to disembark quickly and return home.
But Holland America struggled to find a place to moor as neighboring countries, such as Chile and Peru, closed their borders to foreigners in response to the pandemic.
As a result of the disease outbreak, passengers on the ship were forced to spend the past 12 days confined to their cabins for safety reasons. They spent more than two weeks without knowing if and when they were going to get off the ship and be allowed to go home.
“It has been a nightmare since March 14 when the first port of Chile closed. [Then] all of Chile’s ports have closed and all of South America has closed, “said Joiner.
After a series of releases, Zaandam and Rotterdam planned to dock in Fort Lauderdale. But as the COVID-19 epidemic in Florida worsened, concerns grew that sick passengers would drain the resources needed for local citizens.
“We have something to do with our people in Florida,” Governor Ron DeSantis said on Monday at a press conference. ” We do not want [the ships] enter. “
President Donald Trump, however, advocated for the passengers and their prompt return home.
“We have to help people – they are in big trouble no matter where they come from,” he said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We have to do something; they die and the governor knows it too. “
Joiner said he was surprised but happy when Trump weighed in on the matter.
“We never thought that Mr. Trump would come to our rescue,” he said. “But, you know, you’re starting to think it’s a humanitarian mission. Now we have people who are sick, including Americans. “
What’s going on now?
Holland America said it has obtained approval from a local clinic that will treat “less than 10 people” in Zaandam who need critical medical care.
About 45 other passengers with “mild illness” will remain on board in isolation until they recover and are allowed to travel, the company said.
At some point, healthy passengers will be taken on disinfected buses and transferred mainly to charter flights for their return journey. Carnival Corporation, the parent company of Holland America, said Monday that Canadian passengers would all be shipped to Toronto.
The carpenter’s wife Anna suffers from a cold. But he hopes they will both pass their health check and be able to go home directly.
Joiner said he was told that healthy passengers will be escorted directly to their chartered planes. He said he wouldn’t feel complete relief until he and Anna were tied in their seats on this return flight.
“Until we are on this plane … that’s when we can relax,” he said.