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Cruise to nowhere: Passengers spend Easter on ship

Michael Smith

Bloomberg

 /  Tue, April 14, 2020  /  12:03 pm
Cruise to nowhere: Passengers spend Easter on ship

The Holland America Line Inc. Zaandam cruise ship sits docked at the Port of Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on April 2, 2020. (Bloomberg/Carina Mask)

For some passengers, this has become a cruise to nowhere.

After enduring a coronavirus outbreak on a Carnival Corp. luxury cruise liner, some passengers say they are still trapped aboard another luxurious “ghost ship”, isolated and unable to get home -- more than a month after they first set sail.

Four passengers from Argentina and one from Uruguay spent Easter confined to their cabins on Holland America Line’s Rotterdam, at sea in the Caribbean. Holland America said they were blocked from going home by the Argentine government’s COVID-19-related restrictions.

They are among thousands of passengers still aboard ships almost one month after the world’s major cruise lines agreed to halt cruises because of the dangers of sailing during the pandemic.

“It’s like we are ghosts on a ghost ship,” said Claudia Osiani, 64, of Mar del Plata, Argentina, in an phone interview from her cabin in the Rotterdam. “We just want to go home.”

Osiani began what she hoped would be a dream cruise on the Zaandam on March 7 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Then it turned into a nightmare,” Osiani said.

Read also: Cruise ship rejected by four nations runs out of options

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The Zaandam was stranded at sea for three weeks as a flu-like outbreak sickened roughly 250 passengers and crew. Four people died, including two with COVID-19, according to Holland America. Hundreds of people, including Osiani and her husband Juan Henning, were transferred from the Zaandam to the Rotterdam at sea, near Panama, as passengers and crew were sickened.

The couple have been quarantined since March 22, first in a small cabin with a sealed window, and now in a spacious suite on the near-empty Rotterdam. Six medical exams have shown them to be free of COVID-19, Osiani said.

Holland American had evacuated 1,200 passengers from the Rotterdam and Zaandam soon after the ships docked in Fort Lauderdale, on April 2. “But not us,” said Osiani. She and the other Argentines on the Rotterdam were blocked from boarding a charter flight Thursday because their government declined to authorize their return, citing restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

As of April 7, 53 guests and service staff remain on the Rotterdam, Holland America said. And some crew members may be stuck at sea for awhile as well.

Osiani had a brief break on land. She said they spent Thursday being ferried by bus from the Rotterdam to a nearby airport --twice -- and were sent back to the ship after Holland America failed to get authorization from Argentina to fly them home on a charter flight. Two other Argentines and one Uruguayan national with Argentine residency were also blocked from traveling to the country.

“It’s a big mystery, what will happen to us,” Osiani said. “When will we be able to get home?”

Argentina didn’t authorize their return because the government can only process a limited number of people a day returning from COVID-19 hot spots, like the US, said a spokesman for the Argentine foreign ministry who wasn’t authorized to be quoted by name. The country banned flights to Argentina on March 12, and there wasn’t the capacity to process the passengers on the Rotterdam, the spokesman said.

On Friday, Argentina extended a nationwide lockdown to April 26 amid signs shelter-in-place measures imposed to curb the coronavirus outbreak have succeeded in flattening the rate of infections. President Alberto Fernandez said in a TV interview late Sunday that while the restrictions have slowed the pace of contagion, he couldn’t say when they would end. The country has 2,142 cases of COVID-19 and 90 deaths, according to the health ministry.

Holland America said it’s trying to find another way to get the Argentines on the Rotterdam home. “We are sorry that their travel home is delayed, and we will continue to work on a plan to get them home as soon as possible and when their country permits their entry,” Holland America’s spokesman Erik Elvejord said via email.

The cruise industry is working to get thousands home after the coronavirus pandemic sparked the global shutdown of the cruise industry on March 13. Holland America’s parent company Carnival, the largest cruise line company in the world, has 3,600 passengers on six ships around the world, spokesman Roger Frizzell said.

For now, Osiani spent Easter with her husband in her cabin on the Rotterdam fielding calls from their grandchildren. “We are comfortable, they are giving us everything we need,” she said. “But we don’t have is what every human being wants: freedom.”

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