FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Passengers from an ill-fated cruise were carefully freed from their cabins and allowed to touch dry land on 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 was expected to continue throughout the day. Floridians were getting off first, followed by other passengers. Buses were taking people healthy enough to travel directly to the airport, where they'll board chartered flights home without going through the terminal.
At least four buses brought the first small groups to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday morning, where they prepared to board two planes waiting on the tarmac. The passengers wore masks, while paramedics and airline workers were fully suited up and masked in protective gear.
They'll be followed by what Carnival Corp. said was its last ship 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.
Princess Cruises, a line owned by the larger corporation, had already announced a “higher-than-normal” number of people with flu-like symptoms aboard the Coral Princess.
“This is a humanitarian situation, and the County Commission's top priority is protecting our 1.9 million residents while providing a contained disembarkation option for people on board who need to get safely home,” Broward County Mayor Dale Holness said in a statement late Thursday.
It was unclear when the bodies of four passengers who died on the Zaandam would be removed from the ship, which set sail on March 7, the day before the State Department warned people against cruising during the pandemic, and was thereafter barred from South American ports.
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 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.
Holland America initially said 45 people who were mildly ill would stay on board the Zaandam until they recovered, but the docking plan released later Thursday indicated that 26 passengers and 50 crew members were ill. Two of the four dead had COVID-19, said William Burke, chief maritime officer for Carnival Corp., which owns the ships. Nine people had tested positive for the new coronavirus, Burke said earlier this week.
There were 442 guests and 603 crew on the Zaandam, and 808 guests and 583 crew on the Rotterdam. The Rotterdam was sent last week to take in some of the passengers and provide assistance to the Zaandam since it was denied permission to dock at ports in South America.
About 250 people have reported influenza-like symptoms since March 22, including 17 aboard the Rotterdam, according to the docking plan.
Originally firmly opposed to the ships' arrival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that he had a change of heart after realizing many passengers were U.S. citizens and about 50 of them Floridians.
He went further on Thursday, telling Fox News 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 from the Rotterdam's captain 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.”'
Gomez Licon reported from Miami. Wilfredo Lee contributed from Fort Lauderdale.