Canadian passengers on virus-stricken Coral Princess cruise ship worry how they'll get home
99 Canadians are on board the ship where at least 12 people have tested positive for COVID-19
Canadian passengers on the Coral Princess cruise ship nearing Fort Lauderdale, Fla., worry how they'll get home after at least a dozen COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed on board.
Their fears are stoked by the recent experience of the MS Zaandam, a Holland America Line cruise ship that struggled to secure permission to dock in Fort Lauderdale because it, too, had a COVID-19 outbreak on board.
There are 1,020 passengers and 878 crew members on board the Coral Princess. Ninety-seven of the passengers and two of the crew members are Canadian.
Passenger Frank Béchamp, of Ottawa, said the ship announced the virus outbreak on Wednesday night.
"Our hearts sunk in momentary despair," said Béchamp, 71, in an interview conducted by phone and email.
"All aboard pray that the U.S.A. authorities permit us to dock and provide us passage to the airport so that we may continue our journey home."
The Coral Princess set sail on March 5 on a South American cruise — at a time when there were very few cases of COVID-19 in South America. The ship was set to dock in Fort Lauderdale on April 4, though it now appears those plans are on hold.
On Thursday, Princess Cruises said in a statement that out of 13 people tested for COVID-19 on board, seven passengers and five crew members tested positive.
Passengers are confined to their cabins and have been given face masks.
Regarding docking in Fort Lauderdale, the cruise line said that the Princess Coral's disembarkation plans are being reviewed by local officials. Meanwhile, previous plans for the ship to dock in the city on Saturday have been cancelled.
"Everyone's a bit on edge," said passenger Gary Lyon, 64, of Toronto, who has been communicating with fellow Canadians on board by email. "We're very eager to get home."
'Let us off'
The Coral Princess cut its cruise short in mid-March amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic. But the ship struggled to find a port to let passengers disembark and return home after nearby countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, shut their borders to foreigners.
Many passengers — including some Canadians — were able to disembark on March 19 in Buenos Aires to catch a flight home. But other passengers who had a flight departing the following day stayed on the ship — and then were stuck there after Argentina decided to close its borders to foreigners at midnight.
"Complete disappointment, I mean, we were all packed," said Lyon, who, along with Béchamp, missed his March 20 flight home.
After failing to secure access to a local port, the Coral Princess set its course for Fort Lauderdale. Meanwhile, the virus-stricken Zaandam, which was also scheduled to dock there, faced opposition because the region is already battling its own COVID-19 epidemic.
After much debate and grumbling from local politicians, the Zaandam and its sister ship, the Rotterdam were finally granted permission to dock on Thursday.
Lyon said he hopes that means local officials will also let in the Coral Princess.
"Let us off and put us on the fastest bus possible to the airport," said Lyon, adding that Princess Cruises said it would book flights home for passengers.
Béchamp said he hopes the Canadian government will assist Canadian passengers. "We pray that our government is exploring every possible avenue with the U.S.A. port authorities to get us back to Canada."
Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that it is speaking with various U.S. officials, along with other partner countries, to determine a final docking location for the Coral Princess.
According to GAC, there are currently 145 Canadians still at sea on a total of seven cruise ships.
Cruise lines suspended their operations in mid-March as the global pandemic spread, but some ships in the middle of a cruise at the time were unable to secure an immediate place to dock so passengers could disembark.
Carnival Corp. responds
Both Princess Cruises and Holland America are owned by Carnival Corporation.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Holland America's Zaandam and four Princess cruise ships — the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess, the Ruby Princess and the Coral Princess — have had coronavirus outbreaks.
Only the Coral Princess remains at sea.
As a result of those outbreaks, at least 13 people have died and more than 900 passengers have contracted COVID-19.
Carnival Corp. told CBC News that in comparison to the number of COVID-19 cases on land — which now totals one million — the spread of the virus on cruise ships pales in comparison.
"Any case is unfortunate," spokesperson Roger Frizzell said in an email. "But while there have been a few very high-profile instances of guests on cruise ships testing positive, in reality, these situations have been at a far lower rate by comparison than the rate of spread of COVID-19 throughout communities around the world."
Cruise ships have strict cleansing and sanitation protocols, he said, and adopted enhanced screenings during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Fizzell said that Carnival Corp. is working with health authorities on additional health and safety measures to further protect passengers on cruises.