Holland America's MS Zaandam and MS Rotterdam cruise ships – one with ill people on board – have crossed the Panama Canal and are headed to Florida. But several government officials, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, are concerned about the ships' plans to head to Fort Lauderdale.
The cruise line said late Sunday night the Panama Canal Authority granted permission for the ships to transit the canal. Panama's Ministry of Health gave its permission Saturday.
According to cruise ship-tracking site CruiseMapper.com, both the Zaandam and Rotterdam ships have passed through the canal and are nearing Jamaica, as of Tuesday morning.
Four elderly passengers on the Zaandam died, though the causes of death have not been disclosed; 73 guests and 116 crew members reported flu-like symptoms. Symptoms of the flu and coronavirus are similar. The COVID-19 coronavirus has sickened more than 787,000 people and killed more than 37,800 worldwide as of Tuesday morning. Of the symptomatic passengers who were tested, two tested positive for COVID-19.
Panama Canal administrator Ricaurte Vásquez said the country is not allowing any vessels with positive coronavirus cases through but made an exception for the ships.
“That case (the Zaandam) was simply for humanitarian reasons,” Vásquez said.
The Zaandam’s plans to dock as early as Wednesday in Florida are still up in the air but have already been rebuked by local officials and DeSantis, who says health care resources are stretched too thin. The governor said he has been in contact with the Coast Guard and the White House about diverting the ship.
Broward County officials will meet Tuesday to decide whether to let the ship dock at its Port Everglades cruise ship terminal, where workers who greet passengers were among Florida’s first confirmed coronavirus cases.
DeSantis said it would be “a mistake” to bring the cruise ship passengers into South Florida for treatment because the state already has a high number of coronavirus infections and that number is growing. He said the area’s hospital beds need to be saved for residents and not “foreign nationals.”
“We would like to have medical personnel dispatched to the ship,” he said. He wants the cruise line to arrange that.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis expressed his frustration about the ships' impending arrival in Florida in several social media posts.
"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 wrote in a Facebook post Sunday afternoon.
USA TODAY reached out to Trantalis' office and Port Everglades for further comment.
Trantalis suggested the ships could dock at a Navy base elsewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, explaining that Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades "sits in the very middle of a vast urban area." He said the city would accept the ship only under, "at a minimum, the same protocols as were followed several weeks ago when a cruise ship of sick people docked at the Port of Oakland in California."
The Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland on March 9 after the ship reported 21 coronavirus cases. Of the passengers on the Grand Princess who tested for coronavirus, 103 tested positive and 699 tested negative, and other results are pending. Two passengers died.
"There needs to be stringent separation procedures," Trantalis continued in the post about Holland America. "Foreign nationals must be triaged and as soon as possible put on planes destined for their own country. Sick Americans must be taken to hospitals that are not already facing the possibility of being overwhelmed by local COVID-19 carriers. And, healthy, non-symptomatic American passengers must be taken to close by military bases or similar destinations for quarantine."
Holland America thanked the Panamanian authorities for letting the ships through the canal in a statement issued by spokeswoman Sally Andrews late Sunday night. "We are still finalizing the details for where and when our guests will disembark, and are asking for the same compassion and humanity to be extended for our arrival," the statement said.
The Panama Canal posted a photo of the ship passing through Sunday night.
"Holland America’s MS Zaandam transiting the Panama Canal," the tweet reads.
Holland America’s MS Zaandam transiting the Panama Canal. pic.twitter.com/ifmc5ZL14A
— The Panama Canal (@thepanamacanal) March 30, 2020
Holland America transferred passengers to the Rotterdam and said that process was completed Sunday. It said the two ships are expected to remain together for the rest of the journey.
Holland America Line deployed the Rotterdam, without guests, last week to meet up with the Zaandam to provide extra supplies, staff members, COVID-19 test kits and additional support.
The Zaandam began its South American voyage from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 7 and was originally scheduled to end the sailing in San Antonio, Chile, March 21.
Holland America Line, along with major cruise lines worldwide, announced March 13 it would suspend cruise operations for at least 30 days and end its cruises in progress.
All ports along the ship's route were closed to cruise ships as they seek to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Both vessels received permission from port and health officials to anchor and sent boats to shore, Roger Frizzell, spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Line, parent company for Costa Cruises, told USA TODAY.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Holland America ships headed to Florida amid questions