'Have a little compassion': Canadians on cruise ship with 4 dead still unsure how they'll get home

With a flu-like illness outbreak, four people dead and confirmed cases of COVID-19, it's been a horrific week for the 1,243 passengers — including 247 Canadians — stuck aboard the Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship currently sailing off the coast of Panama.

Now passengers can add more problems to the list: Although the Zaandam was allowed to pass through the Panama Canal Sunday night, passengers still don't know for certain where the cruise ship will dock, and when they'll be able to return home.

The ship had plans to dock and let passengers disembark in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but politicians there are now concerned about letting in a coronavirus-hit ship.

"We have enough to deal with, with our folks in Florida," said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference Monday, where he detailed the toll that COVID-19 is taking on his state.

"They're not wanting us there, so where are we going to go?" said Zaandam passenger Cheryle Stothard, of Toronto. She and her husband have been confined to their cabin for the past week because of the illness outbreak. 

"Going through the Panama Canal is useless if we can't get off in Florida," said the 71-year-old.

Submitted by Cheryle Stothard

Since cutting short its South American cruise on March 14 due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the Zaandam has been seeking a place to dock so passengers can return home. 

On Friday, Holland America announced that four "older" passengers had died and that many others were exhibiting "influenza-like illness symptoms." Currently, 73 passengers and 116 crew members are sick.

The Zaandam is carrying 586 crew members — one of whom is Canadian.

None of the dead is Canadian. Holland America didn't provide a cause of death for the four passengers but said that the ship tested "a number" of patients for COVID-19 on Thursday, and two were positive.

Submitted by Chris Joiner

Passengers grew hopeful on the weekend after learning that the Zaandam could pass through the Panama Canal.

But Holland America's plan to dock in Fort Lauderdale isn't a done deal because Broward County, which includes the city, has yet to give the green light. 

Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine told CBC News that the county is already overrun with COVID-19 cases — more than 1,000 to date  — so he's apprehensive about letting in a ship that will add to its problems. 

"We're a hotspot here. Our medical facilities are taxed," said Udine. "If there are sick people that have to come off, I want them to be able to come off … but where are they going to go? What hospitals are going to be able to take them?"

'Somebody's got to let us dock'

Udine's apprehension is upsetting for passenger Margaret Tilley, who's desperate to return to her home in Nanaimo, B.C.

"Let's have a little compassion," said the 71-year-old. "It just doesn't seem right. Somebody's got to let us dock." 

The Zaandam began its cruise on March 7 and had initially planned to dock on March 16 in Punta Arenas, Chile, to let passengers off early. However, the country refused to allow passengers to disembark, so the ship set course for Fort Lauderdale. 

On the weekend, Tilley and her husband — along with 795 other passengers — were moved to the Zaandam's sister ship, the Rotterdam. Holland America sent the ship, along with medical supplies and more staff, to rendezvous with the Zaandam and transfer "healthy" passengers to the Rotterdam.

Just let us get straight from the boat to a vehicle and to the airport. We don't want to stay in Fort Lauderdale. - Margaret Tilley, passenger

Both ships were able to pass through the Panama canal. Tilley said she wants Broward County to know that the healthy Canadians onboard won't be a burden and just want to get home. 

"Just let us get straight from the boat to a vehicle and to the airport. We don't want to stay in Fort Lauderdale."

Submitted by Margaret Tilley

Udine said that all the passengers would have to be quarantined upon arrival, because some could be asymptomatic.

"There's a lot of things that are going to need to be worked out by this cruise ship before they simply get disembarking in Broward County."

Udine said the county will review a plan for how Holland America will handle the situation and likely make a decision soon. 

Meanwhile, more passengers are feeling unwell. Stothard said that she and her husband Tony have both developed a runny nose and cough. That means they must remain in their cabin, on board the Zaandam along with the ill passengers who are in isolation. 

"We've got to get off," said Stothard. "The longer we stay on here, the more cases we're going to have."

Submitted by Margaret Tilley

Why did they go on a cruise?

Some CBC readers wondered why passengers boarded a cruise on March 7 when COVID-19 was spreading globally.

CBC News asked several Canadian passengers aboard the Zaandam this question. They responded that when they started their journey, there were very few COVID-19 cases in South America. 

The continent didn't have any reported cases until one was confirmed in Brazil on Feb. 26. 

Some passengers also said that, when they were set to begin their trip, there was no opportunity to get a refund. 

Tilley and her husband left Nanaimo on Feb. 28 and travelled for a week in Argentina before their cruise. She said only in hindsight does she see the warning signs. 

'[The virus] was in China," she said about that time period. "We thought South America would be safer."