FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Passengers from an ill-fated cruise were carefully freed from their cabins and allowed to touch dry land Friday for the first time in weeks, following the removal of 14 critically ill people who were wheeled off to Florida hospitals bracing for an onslaught of coronavirus patients.
The exodus from the Zaandaam and its sister ship the Rotterdam could extend into Saturday, officials said. Floridians disembarked first, followed by other passengers. Buses were taking passengers who were showing no symptoms after being screened and cleared by third-party paramedics directly to the airport, escorted by deputies on motorcycles.
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony dispatched more than 70 deputies to disembark and transport the passengers.
“It’s a lot of manpower. But it’s worth it. We don’t want to have people dying on ships,” Tony said, adding the vessels have been turned away enough. It “wasn't some pirate ship...these are our brothers and sisters on this planet."
As for those needing medical care, Broward Health officials said in a statement some of the 10 patients taken to its hospital were in fair condition, without specifying the number. Three others were taken to another local hospital.
Before disembarking, passengers received instructions to wear face masks at all times when traveling and go immediately into 14 days of self quarantine when they arrived home.
At least four buses brought the first small groups to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday morning, where they boarded two planes waiting on the tarmac. Paramedics and airline workers were fully suited up and masked in protective gear. The first planes left for Toronto and Atlanta, officials said.
Carnival Corp. said the next ship to arrive would be its last carrying passengers to a U.S. port since the pandemic was declared. The Coral Princess is expected to arrive at the Port Everglades terminal on Saturday with more than 1,000 passengers who have been isolating in their cabins, including 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on board.
The U.S. Coast Guard has directed that hundreds of crew members should remain on the dozens of cruise ships that are either docked or waiting just off Florida's shores, and that cruise lines should be prepared to treat all but the most serious cases of people who are ill on board to avoid adding more stress to Florida's health care system.
Already, crew members are getting sicker. One has died on the Celebrity Infinity and two others were medically evacuated from the Oasis of the Seas, according to an email Friday from their company, the Miami-based Royal Caribbean cruise line. The Infinity is waiting off Florida’s west coast, and the Oasis of the Seas is positioned off Broward County’s shores.
Seemingly following the new directives, Holland America indicated in the docking plan that 26 passengers who were mildly ill would have to stay on board until they recovered, but all passengers ultimately needed to be cleared by paramedics before disembarking. Nine people had tested positive for the new coronavirus, said William Burke, chief maritime officer for Carnival Corp., which owns the ships.
Burke said earlier this week that two of the four passengers who died had COVID-19. The docking plan said the offices of the medical examiner and sheriff would remove the deceased from the Zaandam.
The Rotterdam was sent last week to take in some of the 1,200 passengers of the Zaandam and provide assistance since it was denied permission to dock at ports in South America.
About 250 people reported influenza-like symptoms since March 22, including 17 aboard the Rotterdam.
Originally firmly opposed to the ships’ arrival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he had a change of heart after realizing many passengers were U.S. citizens and about 50 of them Floridians.
In an interview with Fox News, DeSantis said that allowing passengers to disembark and transferring critically ill patients to hospitals was “the humanitarian thing to do.”
Emily Spindler Brazell, of Tappahannock, Virginia, was still in her cabin waiting for instructions early Friday but said she was relieved to be back home.
“People greeted us, came out to their balconies, blew air horns and shouted, ‘Welcome home!’” she said. “It was surprising. We went to many countries that said, ‘We are not going to talk to you.’”
Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami, contributed to this report.