A luxury cruise ship battling a Covid-19 outbreak would be allowed to pass through the Panama canal, the country’s government confirmed, although it remained unclear where it would be allowed to dock.
Four passengers have died and dozens have fallen ill on the Zaandam, which was stranded off the coast of Panama after several Latin America countries refused to let it into port.
On Saturday evening the Panamanian government for “humanitarian reasons” reversed a decision to stop it passing through the canal, allowing it to proceed to Fort Lauderdale, Florida as its owners, Holland America Line, had originally planned.
On Saturday evening representatives for Fort Lauderdale would not confirm to the Guardian that the ship would be allowed to dock. It still had hundreds of elderly passengers from the UK, US and Australia onboard.
“I haven’t gotten anything,” said Broward county commissioner Michael Udine, who had voiced strong concerns about the ship coming into south Florida. “That’s something that would have to go through Unified Command at the port first,” referencing a group that includes the US Centers for Disease Control, the coast guard and Florida health department.
“I’m still very concerned,” he said. “If this ship arrives here, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on our local health system.”
Panama’s health ministry said it would make a humanitarian exemption to new rules about the global pandemic and allow the cruise ship to pass, adding that canal staff boarding the ship would be given biosafety gear. Canal staff must navigate ships through and the ministry had previously said that doing so would endanger staff.
Dozens of symptom-free passengers were moved across from the Zaandam to its sister ship, the Rotterdam. Holland America Line said on Saturday night: “We are aware of reported permission for both Zaandam and Rotterdam to transit the Panama Canal in the near future. We greatly appreciate this consideration in the humanitarian interest of our guests and crew. This remains a dynamic situation, and we continue to work with the Panamanian authorities to finalise details.”
While passengers and family members of people on board welcomed the news that the cruise liner would be allowed to pass through the canal, some warned that more passengers would die if better medical attention was not given to those remaining.
“It’s really surreal,” said Jih-Hao Jim Cheng, a southern California resident, whose father was sick with a fever onboard the ship. “It’s very scary for my parents and everyone onboard.”
He said his mother had been trying to call the ship staff to get medicine or help but no one was responding. “The cruise line doesn’t have a plan,” he said. “It’s great that they are getting the well on to another ship. But unless they have a strategy for the sick, more people are going to die soon.”