Skip to main content

Passengers, one wearing a protective face mask, look out from the Zaandam cruise ship, anchored in the bay of Panama City in this file photo from March 27, 2020.The Associated Press

Kevin and Jeannette Balgopal put on masks, left their stateroom on the MS Zaandam cruise ship, and rolled their suitcases to the front of the boat around 4:30 p.m. Saturday. Crew members sprayed what the couple believed to be disinfectant on their luggage before they got off the vessel, on which four people have died as the novel coronavirus blankets the globe.

But the Balgopals, along with 1,700 others who were aboard the Zaandam, are still at sea. The Zaandam and their new floating home, the MS Rotterdam, have no place to go.

Jeannette and Kevin Balgopal​. Photo taken on the Zaandam cruise on March 26, 2020.Handout

Holland America Line operates the ships and over the weekend transferred healthy passengers to the Rotterdam from the Zaandam while anchored off the west side of the Panama Canal. The boats have secured passage through the canal, according to the Canadian government, but it is still unclear whether Florida will allow the boats to dock in Fort Lauderdale.

“Don’t know how much longer we can handle this isolation before we go squirrelly,” Mr. Balgopal said in an e-mail. “We need to get off this ship and get home."

Cruise ships quickly emerged as a dangerous place as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, spread around the world. There have been several examples of large numbers of passengers and crew becoming infected on cruise ships, prompting governments to deny them permission to dock and unload.

Orlando Ashford, the president of Holland America, tried to ease the frustration that’s building among passengers and their family members with a short video that played in the rooms aboard both ships. The two boats, he said, will stay and work together as they travel to an unknown destination.

“The important thing here is isolation," he said in the video, which was also posted online. “Whether you’re isolated on the Zaandam or isolated on the Rotterdam, the way that we protect the health of those of you that are healthy is to make sure that you are isolated safely while we figure out where it is that we’re going to take you and allow you."

He apologized for the passengers’ thwarted vacation. "This has turned into a safety and humanitarian effort.”

There were 248 Canadians, including one crew member, aboard the Zaandam when the cruise started, according to the federal government. There are four doctors and four nurses on that ship, which originally carried 1,243 passengers and 586 crew members. There are two doctors and four nurses on the Rotterdam.

Maria Lewis’s parents are still on the Zaandam, which was supposed to take passengers on a 31-day South American adventure around the Falkland Islands and then the southern tip of Chile.

Ms. Lewis said her mother, who is 72 and did not want to be identified, fell ill a week ago. She had a temperature of 38.1 C; the crew put her parents in separate rooms and gave them Tamiflu, which guards against influenza. Ms. Lewis said her mother’s fever returned later in the week and that the elderly woman slept most of Saturday. Her mother has been unable to persuade crew to examine her.

“They won’t come check on her,” Ms. Lewis said, referring to Zaandam’s crew. “She’s desperate at this point.”

Holland America said it worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as it transferred healthy passengers to the Rotterdam. The company said passengers with inside cabins and those older than 70 were given priority.

There have been hiccups. Kathy Doull’s mother, who is 81, was among those transferred to the Rotterdam. Her mother was on the cruise with a friend, sharing a cabin with two beds. When they switched ships, however, the two women were put in a room with just one bed. Ms. Doull said her mother, who is asthmatic, was later told she would be moved to a balcony room.

Earlier, more than 700 people, including 54 Canadians, were infected aboard the Diamond Princess cruise, which sat in quarantine off Japan for weeks.

This month, the federal government airlifted more than 230 Canadians who were aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship that was held off the coast of California. They were sent to Canadian Forces Base Trenton in eastern Ontario to be isolated and 13 later tested positive for the disease.